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Omaha Friends Grapple with the Issues

Posted on Wednesday, November 29, 2006 at 05:00PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments10 Comments

ew cameo.jpgNot long after my return from my long walk — more accurately, my long walk-hobble-and-drive — some of the members of my local Friends meeting here in Omaha began saying that we needed to do some grappling of our own with environmental issues.

I suppose this was, in part, a bit of unexpected fallout from the walk. After all, the members of my meeting could hardly endorse my leading as genuine, while refusing to grapple with it themselves. And they said as much.

But there’s also the fact that environmental degradation of one sort or another is more and more in the news as the crisis accelerates, and the news troubles us all.

And we do have an environmental query in our Iowa (Conservative) discipline, which every meeting in Iowa (Conservative) considers once a year, usually in October. And that advice and query helps us to remember that environmental responsibility is indeed one part of the Quaker path.

So we would have felt called to grapple with these issues sooner or later regardless. My walk across the country just hurried things up a little.

We held our special session on environmental issues on Sunday, October 8, which was the Sunday after we considered the environmental advice and query. This, in essence, turned our special session into a deeper look at the query, and a more concrete consideration of our duties in response.

I made no attempt to control the direction of the discussion. My sense was that the members and attenders of our meeting needed to talk out their ideas and feelings and work out their answers without being pressured or forced.

What emerged from the discussion were five lines of inquiry, each of which interested a different subset of our circle:

  • Some of us — and one in particular — were interested in some sort of intentional “green community”, preferably in the city so as not to divorce us from the things we are already involved with. This would be a compact arrangement in which we would all live close to one another, and which could be made resource-efficient and nature-friendly in all sorts of ways.

  • Public transit was a major interest. We talked about the need for more bike trails and bike racks in the community, and the possibility of working with the city to develop better public transit options.

  • Conservation was another interest. We discussed home energy audits and winterizing projects (such as those discussed at the Energy Star web site).

  • Pollution issues interested many of us. We discussed an “under the sink project” to dispose of toxic substances in our homes that we no longer needed. We also talked about pesticides used on our lawns. Some of us raised the subject of xeriscaping, by which I suspect they meant “zero-scaping”, i.e. leaving the land unlandscaped.

  • Several of us stressed environmental education as a starting point, before we tried to do anything. We discussed creating a “how-to” list, and maybe posting the list on our meeting’s web site where our members and attenders could refer to it.

As our discussion progressed, I became concerned that we were not talking directly about any of the big serious public policy issues — e.g., global warming, wilderness destruction, and extinctions of species — or asking how appropriate this list of projects would be in addressing such issues. But when I spoke that concern out loud, Friends responded that they wanted and needed to “start small”.

One person said, maybe later we’d be ready to look at global warming — next year, or the year after, or the year after that — when the current pressures on our members’ lives let up a bit. (Without going into details, I will say that some of our members have quite a few complications and difficulties to struggle with just now.)

It was agreed that the group would forward anything it found out about any of these projects to a central coördinator (we named a specific person), and that she would then bring whatever she received to a small continuing committee (which I will be a member of), which will then prepare proposals to bring back to the meeting as a whole.

It’s interesting to me, and more than a little sobering, to compare what came out of this discussion at my meeting, with what came out of a similar discussion at Strawberry Creek Monthly Meeting, in Berkeley, California, a month later.

Strawberry Creek zeroed in on the most visible of the great world crises; but there is relatively little attention given in its minute to the hard questions of how much its members can actually do, and what concrete steps they will begin with in order to implement their “corporate witness”. (Did they appoint further meetings? Name people to committees or task forces? Choose specific ways to intervene supportively in one another’s lives?)

My own meeting preferred to zero in on “what little, concrete steps can we take in our own lives?”, without talking about which big issues these steps would actually help to mitigate or how meaningful the mitigation might be.

The difference between these two approaches not only underscores what is missing from each, it is also a reminder that each is only a first step toward a very big goal, and that it is unfair to expect too much from any first step. And that of course is what I find sobering.

I think of something that Karen Street recently said on her blog — that “…we as a society have been dawdling too long. We have fewer choices available today than we had last month, less time to make up our mind today than a week ago.”

I shall be hoping and praying that my own meeting, and Strawberry Creek Meeting too, will have the commitment and the faithfulness to keep moving forward.

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Reader Comments (10)

I read the link to Iowa's "Green Advice and Query". I'm impressed that it manages to affirm the importance of environmental issues and indeed the sacredness of our environment without committing anyone to "deep ecology" assumptions (i.e., the Gaia hypothesis).
Nov 30, 2006 at 05:53AM | Unregistered Commenterdavid
Greetings Marshall and all,

Xeriscaping is basically landscaping with plants that don't need water, appropriate to your climatic zone.

I would add that using plants native to your area would likely be xeriscaping and also help keep local flora, and fauna that depend on those plants, thriving.

Living in Massachusetts, I am pleased to see our state at the forefront of the effort to sue the EPA on its lack of rigor concerning CO2. The changes are happening on the ground here in New England. Farmers, especially, notice it in that they now have to pay much more attention to drainage because of the extra moisture coming our way from the Gulf of Mexico. Vermont will set a record low for November snowfall (they got rain instead) of 0.5". The previous low record was 7".

Farmers around me are telling me that they have plants resprouting that should have gone dormant and the grass is still growing!

Friends could at least send their state and Washington pols a post card saying that enough has not been done and giving the naysayers airtime will cost many lives in the long run.

I have begun to think of how to build a sense of plain earth people among Friends and friends. Is there a sense of becoming a tax refusnik because of the squandering and plunder of natural resources sponsored and encouraged by our federal government?

How many people will the land around Omaha really sustain without huge energy inflows in truck fuel, refrigeration, etc?

A melange of comments, perhaps, but for me, this is where the meat is.

Just for those who think my state is all urban, my county is one of the highest per capita agricultural producing counties in the US. I live surrounded by forest and we hear the Eastern Coyote fairly often. The moose is coming back. I have seen his tracks in the yard. We see bear from time to time.

I also do not want to do Omaha a disservice by ascribing the word 'backwater' to it.

Carry on Friends,


Nov 30, 2006 at 06:46AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Campbell
Marshall -- Your report sounds very familiar to me. Isn't this an iteration of how Friends struggle to live any of our testimonies? Do we make the Peace Testimony by learning non-violent communication and alternatives to violence approaches to individual conflicts? Or do we engage in large scale political action to influence government policy?

The answer is, on the one hand, yes, to both. However, each tempts us to self-righteousness with the illusion that by "being against" something we are somehow absolved of responsibility for its continuation.

I wonder if it wouldn't be more helpful to ask: How are I -- and we -- complicit in the problem and how can I -- and we -- withdraw my (our) consent for it continuing. In other words, how are we benefiting from the problem and what suffering are we able to endure by disclaiming those benefits?

This approach seems to me to require both personal, concrete transformation of individual lives and engagement of institutions and powers simultaneously. It changes the focus of the question from what "we" (as individuals, as a meeting, as a political entity) can "do" to prevent or stop wars or slow global warming -- those realities have lives of their own that exist independent of human "control" -- to how we can withdraw our allegience to them, not expecting that our efforts will concretely "change" anything, but that we will be faithful to the One True God. Daniel, Shadrach Meshach and Abednego didn't bring down Nebuchadnezzar, and they were in no way innocent of sin, but their fearless witness helped pave the way.

(There's an old story of a Washington D.C. policeman who asked a Friends School student why he was standing on the corner with an anti-war sign. "You can't change the world by holding a sign," he said. "Maybe not, but I'm here so that the world doesn't change me," was the student's reply.)

That said, I think that a meeting community that publically commits to concretely reducing its participation in the global warming phenenomon by 10% is at least as effective and appropriate as withholding a zillionth of a percent of federal taxes as a protest of military spending. Either act -- even when combined with that of many others -- is less than a drop in the ocean, but each witnesses to the actor's unwillingness and inability to remain silent and complicit.

One concrete question: Are there reliable conventions for a family or meetinghouse to measure their production of greenhouse gasses that could serve as a baseline?

Thanks again for another provocative message.

Nov 30, 2006 at 10:59AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul L
Hi, david! Many thanks for commenting --

I think it's worth trying to distinguish between "deep ecology assumptions" and the Gaia Hypothesis. The two things are not synonymous; neither one requires the other; and in fact, to some extent the two lead to differing conclusions about what needs to be done.

"Deep ecology" refers to an environmentalist perspective that is not narrowly human-centered, and recognizes that ecosystems need to be preserved as wholes, and that other species are as valuable in that regard as our own. Belief in deep ecology tends to lead people to the conclusion that we need to strive even to preserve the most seemingly trivial of species. Thus, some fairly radical preservationist organizations, like Earth First!, have been grounded in belief in deep ecology. But to be fair, many supporters of far more moderate and peaceable organizations, like The Nature Conservancy, the Endangered Species Coalition, and The Wildlands Project, also tend to subscribe to deep-ecology tenets. Belief in deep ecology is not an automatic generater of radicalism.

"The Gaia Hypothesis" is the speculation (not a genuine hypothesis, since not testable) that the global biosphere is a sort of super-organism with self-regulatory and ultimately self-healing powers. Belief in the Gaia Hypothesis has led people to believe that we don't need to struggle too hard to stop environmental destruction, since the Earth will eventually heal itself in any case. Indeed, I have heard a number of Friends say things along these lines.

A great many Iowa (Conservative) Friends are farmers, or live close to the land, and we meet in natural surroundings twice a year. As you can imagine, this really helps to keep us awake to the preciousness of the natural world.

But relatively few of us are of the sort to build our lives or belief systems either around deep ecology or around the Gaia Hypothesis. Farmers, after all, do have to be willing to mess up the local ecosystem and all its species at least to some extent in order to farm. And the Gaia Hypothesis is just a little too pagan-sounding to have any broad appeal around here.
Dec 2, 2006 at 12:30PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Don, it's always nice to hear from you.

You might be interested to know that I was fairly involved in the xeriscape movement in Colorado. (Colorado was where xeriscaping originated; in fact, if you click on the link I provided in my article, you'll find that the term "xeriscape" is trademarked by Denver Water.)

Native planting is sometimes compatible with xeriscaping, sometimes not; it depends on how much water the particular native plant requires and also on how the plant is going to get its water. In our yard in Colorado, my wife and I planted a dwarf maple: maples are wetland trees and fairly thirsty, but ours was compatible with our xeriscaping scheme because we planted it near a sewer line and it got its water there.

You ask, "How many people will the land around Omaha really sustain without huge energy inflows in truck fuel, refrigeration, etc?" I don't know the answer to that, Don, but it's certainly a very large number. We are in the middle of the rich farmlands of western Iowa and eastern Nebraska, which are well watered in most years both by rainfall and by the Missouri and Platte rivers. This region is a major exporter of corn, soybeans, cattle, hogs, poultry, and dairy products, and produces good quantities of apples and even some decent wines.

Backwaters are as backwaters do, my friend. Jesus Christ grew up in a backwater, and his teachings changed the course of civilization. The cradle of Quakerism was the backwater North of England. In your lifetime and mine, backwater Omaha has produced culture-shapers such as Chuck Hagel (a prominent Republican opponent of the Iraq war in the U.S. Senate), multibillionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett, moviemaker Alexander Payne, blues artist Buddy Miles, folk-rock musician Conor Oberst, etc. (I'm omitting other names for brevity.)

The real danger in sneering at "backwaters", though, is not that one might overlook their contributions to popular culture. The real danger is that one might cut oneself off from a coöperative connection with the ninety-odd per cent of one's human sisters and brothers who live in such places.
Dec 2, 2006 at 03:49PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Paul, you make quite a few good points!

I think you're very right about the parallel to the two contrasting ways in which Friends express the Peace Testimony. And the parallel hadn't occurred to me until you pointed it out.

A ruthlessly simplified (and perhaps over-simplistic) calculator, for figuring how much CO2 your lifestyle generates, can be found on-line at http://www.climatecrisis.net/takeaction/carboncalculator/ . There are downloadable resources for those who want to look at the issue in more detail at http://www.coolmob.org/c_tools.html (an Australian site). And Chris Goodall has written a book titled *How to Live a Low Carbon Life* for those who not only want to examine their lifestyle carefully but also learn more about solutions; it can be ordered on-line at http://styluspub.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=151823 .

I didn't think my message was *that* provocative! But you're welcome, all the same.
Dec 2, 2006 at 04:55PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Marshall, a great post illuminating your Meeting's take on the "walk vs. talk" divide. I find myself coming down much more on the letting our lives be our ministry, and it seems that Omaha is starting to grapple with what that life would look like for them. This is the kind of work I long to do, but am still too transient to begin. ::sigh:: Thanks!
Dec 5, 2006 at 01:28PM | Unregistered CommenterJay O'Hara
Lively and helpful interaction here.

Greetings from Don again,

I added a post to the previous piece of Marshall's, but we move on. I think that Daniel Quinn has hit on an easy way to think about what our moral onligation is. In his book, 'Ishmael', Quinn says the world has 2 kinds of cultures, TAKERS and LEAVERS.

Takers hoard, they harvest right to the very edge of the field, allowing nothing for the gleaners, animal or human. They wall off resources for their own use because they MIGHT want it later.

Leavers take what they need for now, and leave the rest. As we are reminded in Jesus' reminder to consider the lilies of the field.

Lest you think this is ridiculous, I recommend strongly an article by Marshall Sahlins, 'The Original Affluent Society'. Among other great ideas in the article he defines affluence as 'the ease with which we meet our needs.' Hmmm, what does that say about the affluence of those deeply engaged in the rat race in hopes of rewards. Big consumers, yes, but rich? wealthy? I do not think so.

Perhaps, Friends, our principles should include moving to a 'leaver' mode of living. From wherever you are, take the next step to leaving more for others.

Peace, you rads of the Heart,

Dec 6, 2006 at 07:31AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Campbell
Jay, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate the way you phrase the issue as one of "letting our lives be ministry".

Don, thanks again for the book recommendation.
Dec 7, 2006 at 05:59AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
I was just at a Green Party of Canada gala fundraising dinner last night with the new leader of the party, Elizabeth May. She is a well-known Canadian figure who already has the Order of Canada (kind of like a knighthood) and has been an advisor to several governments. As former head of the Sierra Club of Canada and an experienced lawyer, she handles the media superbly.

She gave a very direct and moving talk about how the world's environmental crisis is really a democracy crisis. Any party could make the decisions needed to meet Kyoto and go far beyond it. But party machinery, "handlers", and the complex web of control of the parties takes the intelligent people we put in leadership roles and assigns them the words they will say and the actions they will take. It dumbs them down. She gave Al Gore as an example of someone who was dumbed down by his party, to the point that he lost.

She also talked about how honesty has disappeared. Instead of saying what they really think, leaders vet every concept against focus groups and lawyers. They tiptoe around issues. Instead of discussing and solving problems, they criticize each other, reducing democracy to nitpicking and party feifdoms.

This observation resonated with me. Since May just finished a very successful by-election campaign, in which she came second with 26% of the vote, just behind the Liberal guy who won with 32% (and blowing away the Tories, who only got 10%), she told us that it resonates with voters too. People liked the fact that she had great things to say about the other candidates and that she supported them in their efforts, that she didn't say negative things, that she pointed out how other parties could improve their policies. People told her explicitly that they were voting for her because they thought she could change the dysfunctions in the system -- not just for environmental issues, but for growing poverty issues, global economy issues, and healthcare issues.

Analysts have said that had the by-election campaign gone on for another three days, May would have won. Her support was increasing daily and was drawing from all three major party supporters. We do expect to elect Greens in the next election, which could occur as early as the spring.

Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is that to deal with environmental issues in any significant way, we have to reform the political machinery. I know, much harder in the US, which is further along the road to nondemocracy. But California has made some really great strides because the leadership was there. I think it can be done.

My recommendation would be a national petition for proportional representation to get rid of the first-past-the-post system and open the door for real political debate. I think you have the type of congress that might be interested in listening to such a petition, if it were large enough.

Dec 8, 2006 at 10:10AM | Unregistered CommenterNancy A

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