Candlemas at Lincoln College

By February 1, 2015Theology

Today we celebrate Candlemas. So I want to talk to you about candles. You’ve got one in front of you. Have you ever stopped to consider what a clever technology they are? Let me read out to you this description of how they work, courtesy of Chris Woodford of ‘Explain that Stuff’:

‘Candles may look simple but they’re remarkably ingenious. Set fire to the wick, and heat travels rapidly downward toward the wax body of the candle beneath. The wax has a low melting point, so it instantly turns into a hot liquid and vaporizes, funnelling straight up around the wick as though it’s rushing up an invisible chimney. The wax vapour catches light and burns, sending a flame high above the wick. Heat from the flame travels in three directions, through conduction, convection, and radiation. Conduction carries heat down the wick to melt more wax at the top of the candle. Convection draws hot wax vapours out from the wick and sucks oxygen from the surrounding air into the base of the flame. The flame also gives off heat in all directions through radiation. The candle continues to feed on the wax underneath it until it’s all burned away, until all the potential energy locked away in the wax is converted to heat, light, and chemical waste.’

Gosh. I want to marvel at this, but also to use it as a metaphor. This week the Archbishop of Canterbury has been warning us all not to preach claptrap about being nice, so don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest anything daft like that.

First of all, I want you to notice that the First Law of Thermodynamics is in play here (I hope you’re impressed that a theologian has heard of such a thing). This is the law of the conservation of energy, which states that the total energy of an isolated system is constant. Energy can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed. In the case of the candle, it sacrifices its physical being to give us light and heat. We throw out the stubs and think no more about it. (By the way, the Fortnum & Mason empire was built on candle stubs if you want to look that up).

Now I want you to think about where else our careless disregard for the First Law of Thermodynamics appears. Have you ever thrown anything away? Where do you think ‘away’ is? I don’t know if Lincoln has done this yet, but a lot of places are now labelling their bins either ‘recycling’ or ‘landfill’ to make this point. Of course our refuse doesn’t get magick’d away by the bin fairies. It remains part of our system, and we’ve seen how the poor storage and disposal practices of our industrial and domestic waste has wrought havoc on water supplies, oceans, nature and the atmosphere, all over the planet. One explanation for tectonic activity suggests that earthquakes, volcanoes and tsumanis are likely to increase as our polluting activity increases, as the earth seeks to stabilise the ecosystem, by burping up the elements it needs for replenishment and atmospheric control from the earth’s core. Which is all a bit sobering, particularly if you were thinking of pursuing a career in Silicon Valley or somewhere else rather too close to a plate join.

But I actually want to focus on a more metaphorical use of the First Law of Thermodynamics, and talk to you about money, and about money as energy. I’m not sure if you are used to thinking of the economy as an energetic system. But it certainly functions like one. Messages about supply meet messages about demand, and vice versa, and prices govern the resulting transactions. So what does it mean when you ‘spend’ your money? Is it spent? Of course not. It travels.

The new economics foundation have devised a clever tool to track this, called the Local Multiplier 3 methodology. It varies a little by area, but to give you an example, their study in Northumberland found that every £1 spent with a local supplier was worth £1.76 to the local economy, and only 36p if it was spent in a chain-store or national brand. That makes £1 spent locally worth almost 400% more. For the Council, this meant that if they were to spend just 10% more of their annual procurement budget locally, it would mean £34 million extra circulating in the local economy each year. What would it mean for the economy in Oxford if all the students spent more money in locally-owned enterprises rather than in trendy chains, online, or in London?

So think hard when you ‘spend’ your money. Don’t ‘throw it away’. Send it out to be heat and light, so that its energy multiplies. Your money acts like a vote. The more something gets voted for, the more it happens, which is why over time the market ends up just meeting the needs of the rich and powerful. But you can use your votes more carefully than this.

One example of Christian activism in this area is the story of the Fair Trade movement. Famously started in the UK in the 1970s by students from Durham, by 1998, the fair trade market in the UK was worth around £17million annually. During the noughties the market multiplied exponentially, and is now worth over £1billion a year. In coffee alone, Fairtrade now accounts for almost a quarter of the UK’s roast and ground market. Fair trade bananas were only introduced in 1996. Now a third of the bananas we buy are Fairtrade, so in the UK we eat 3,000 fairtrade bananas every minute! It doesn’t really take that long to transform whole sectors by creating an entirely new segment, if we just chose positively at the checkout.

As well as spending positively, you can avoid enterprises you dislike. Consumer boycotts have a noble history, from the historical sugar and chocolate boycotts over the slave trade and indentured labour, to boycotts of Apartheid South Africa when I was a student. Modern campaigns over animal testing, the fur trade, poor environmental and fishing practices, sweatshop labour, and human rights abuses, have resulted in several company climb-downs, in the face of falling sales and negative publicity, and social media has made it even easier for these campaigns to hit home. Over Christmas, campaigners reckon Amazon missed out on sales worth over £5.5m, after 85,000 UK consumers pledged to go Amazon-free in protest over their poor tax practices.

And students are brilliantly placed to lead these initiatives. A few years ago in the US, the clothing company Fruit of the Loom was subject to the largest ever student boycott, in response to its decision to close down a Honduran factory when its workers unionised. 96 US colleges severed their contracts with the company, and 10 UK universities followed suit. The campaign was estimated to have cost the company $50million. In the end, the company not only reopened the factory and gave everyone their jobs back, it paid them $2.5million in compensation, and fully restored union rights.

And as they say, if you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito. Here are some numbers for you.

There are almost two and a half million students in the UK, and in England you can add some of the 4 million secondary school kids to your army. With the internet and your friends and family connections, you can also reach out to some of the estimated 200 million student population worldwide. And that’s just students. In the UK the Christian lobby is still a force to be reckoned with. Even in the last Census there were 37.5 million of us. Just to put that into perspective, one of the strongest lobbies in the world is the US National Rifle Association. And they only have about 4 million members. Ok, they’re armed, but we’re dangerous. We’ve got shoes!

Quite a lot of shoes, as it happens. Apparently women own 20 pairs of shoes on average, but wear only 5 pairs regularly. With men, it’s 7, and if you’re anything like my husband, you wear the same pair every day. So could you donate a pair of shoes to that Oxfam on Broad Street? There are 600 of you at Lincoln. Say they sell them at an average of £2 a pair. That’s over a thousand pounds. That would pay for safe water for a thousand people. It would fix about 50 wells. It would buy 150 mosquito nets, or educate 50 children. Just your old shoes.

So take this candle away with you, to remind you about the conservation of energy. Your money doesn’t leave the system, it stays within it, so make sure you send it on its way rejoicing. Then you too will be a light to lighten the gentiles, and we can all depart in peace. Amen.

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