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On Living in Harmony with All God's Creation

Friends, this is not the talk I gave at Baltimore Yearly Meeting. I can’t give you that talk, because I gave it ex tempore, yielding to the guidance of the Holy Spirit as I proceeded, and I couldn’t remember much of what I’d said even just a couple of days later.

But I did put together a loose outline beforehand, and I believe I followed that outline with moderate faithfulness. And I still have those notes.

So this is not the talk I gave to the yearly meeting then. This is instead a companion essay, dedicated to all the folks who took an interest in my journey across the country, counseled me along the way, helped in the long labor of discernment, and helped make it all possible — based on that same set of notes, and hopefully, making a similar set of points.

In other words, dear friends, this is for you. And I hope your hearts approve it.

ew cameo.jpgI.  Is there an issue? Is it ours?
And where does our Society fit in?

The thing that struck me most, Friends, as I walked — and, later, after my ankles gave out, as I walked-and-drove — from my home in Omaha, Nebraska to here in Harrisonburg, Virginia, is the incredible immensity of the land that I was crossing.

In Iowa I would cross maybe one little river, with two or three of its tiny tributary streams, each running down the middle of its own broad scoop of valley, in a whole day of walking. In central Illinois and central Ohio, where I drove but held myself to a walking pace, it would be one great glacially-flattened plain that took day after day after patient day to get across.

In Indiana I would wander among tiny hills and valleys long past counting. In the Appalachians the hills turned into mountains, and yet in forty minutes the scenery would be utterly transformed not once but twice as I would pass from one turn in the valley I was walking along to the next. Each new bend in the valley was another mansion, rich and beautiful enough to house an emperor in splendor.

I remember multiple scenes from each and every day of that journey. But when they’re all added up, they make a vastness of experience that my mind cannot so much as begin to encompass. It drives home to me — powerfully! — the truth of Christ’s saying, that in my Father’s house are many mansions.

What an incredible gift this world is! The size and richness of it make it hard to believe that humanity could do any significant harm to it at all.

— And yet we know that humanity can, because we can see the harm that humanity has already done. I recently saw a statistic, that geographers estimate that seventy per cent of the earth’s surface has suffered some desertization at humanity’s hands. And certainly I saw a lot of evidence of desertization all along my own journey — as I reported on my blog site!

And desertization is, of course, not the only matter that the environmental community is concerned about. There is the destruction of biological communities and biosystems, like the coral reefs and the rainforests and the grasslands, and the extinction of species worldwide. There is also the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

I won’t talk to you here about how serious these issues are, because I believe most of you have heard the reports. Whether you believe the reports or not is another issue, of course.

But I will say this: that in my own estimation, and it is a long-seasoned, carefully-considered estimation, each of these issues, in one way or another, is a genuine threat to the basic life-support functions of our Spaceship Earth. And therefore, each one endangers the survival of humanity and human civilization.

Now, the life-support functions of Spaceship Earth have never been a reason for concern before. This is new territory for our species. These are challenges we do not yet know our ability to deal with.

In this context, then, what should we mean by “harmony with all God’s Creation”?

As one of the Friends I met with on my journey pointed out, it’s kind of like living in harmony with another person.

Living in harmony with person does not just mean you take and take and take from that person, and never give back. It has to be a two-way thing. It doesn’t mean you always insist on your own way, and never let the other person have what she or he wants. It has to be two-way. Above all, it doesn’t mean that you treat the person as an object and possession, and never as an equal to yourself. Harmony doesn’t happen that way.

It has to be a two-way thing.

When we look at humankind’s effect on the Earth, and on the Earth’s creatures, what we see is an Earth from which we’ve taken a lot, and given very little back. That’s why all the species that have already gone extinct, and why all the desertized land.

When we look at the Earth, it looks like a situation in which we’ve insisted on our own way far too often, instead of listening to what the Earth wants. That’s why we have a major city, New Orleans, which is flooded — because we built without listening.

When we look at the Earth, it looks like a home that we’ve treated too often as merely a disposable object.

Truly living in harmony with God’s Creation would require reform on all these fronts. And therefore it would require a lot of work, hard work on a daily basis — work on ourselves, to change the way we relate to the Earth and the creatures, every bit as much as work on technical solutions. Enough work, intense enough work, to require a substantial change of lifestyle and attitude for everyone in the First World.

Friends, is this our proper business — Friends’ proper business, rather than the Sierra Club’s? I suppose that’s like asking whether harmony is a Quaker testimony or a Sierra Club testimony.

Is the wisdom of relationships, of harmonious relationships, more an Environmental Defense Fund litigators’ wisdom, or more a Quaker wisdom? By way of answer, it seems to me that I need merely point to Edward Hicks’s paintings of the Peaceable Kingdom, with the animals laying down with the children in their foregrounds.

Hicks saw the founding of the colony of Pennsylvania as a genuine step toward the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, the day when people and animals too would be reconciled. In that, he was several steps ahead of even the Sierra Club — for not only did the Sierra Club not even arise until two generations later, but even when it arose, the Sierra Club did not foresee genuine reconciliation between humanity and the beasts; it foresaw only a rude coexistence. And the Environmental Defense fund litigators foresee only more and more litigation. Hicks saw beyond all that, beyond them all, because he saw with Friendly eyes.

Most importantly, is this an area where Friends can play a crucial role, and bring about the essential changes — or is it something that ought to be left to the experts, a matter where Friends would only get in the way? My personal answer to that question is this: We Friends have a demonstrated ability to catalyze change that puts the experts’ abilities to shame.

I’ll tell you a little story, if I may.

These last few years, I’ve been working in retail, most recently as a salesman of men’s suits. From time a customer would remark on the fact that I seemed oddly full of words for a retail salesperson. I would explain, then, that I am actually a writer struggling to pay the bills while I finish a book.

“Oh, really?” the customer would say: “a book about what?” And I would explain that it is a book about something the Quakers did, and have. As a tiny movement three hundred years ago, no more popular than the Jehovah’s Witnesses are today, the Quakers transformed the entire Western world, even without making any converts — and that that amazing power to transform the world interests me deeply, and I want to talk about where that power came from and how it works.

“Oho?” my customer would say. “I know a little about the Quakers. But I never heard that they transformed the Western world.” “Why, you’re mostly Quaker yourself, because of what they did,” I would say.

“Start with this new suit you’re buying. The reason you’re paying a set price for it, instead of haggling with me like a customer at an Oriental bazaar, is that Quakers introduced and popularized the fixed-price system.

“Then this contract you’re about to sign: the reason you can read it is that Quakers popularized universal primary education. The reason your wife can read it is that Quakers introduced and championed full equality of the sexes in Western society.

“If I cheat you, the reason that I go to trial and then to jail, instead of being put in the stocks and pelted with rotten tomatoes and dead cats, is that Quakers popularized penal reform. But you don’t expect that I would cheat you, because Quakers also introduced a general expectation that retail merchants should be trustworthy — and it caught on.”

And if the customer showed sufficient interest, I would go on in this vein, mentioning freedom of conscience, the right to peaceable dissent, simplicity of dress, egalitarian expectations in speech, the normative idea that slavery is wrong, faith in a government based on a written constitution — Oh, I never got to the end of my list of changes that Friends catalyzed with any of my customers, because it’s a very long list indeed. But they got the idea.

And I would always try to end my list with a mention of faith in the still, small Voice that speaks in each person’s conscience. For that was what made Quakers different at the beginning, but it’s amazing how many people besides Quakers believe in it today.

We — or rather, our predecessors, the Friends of times past — totally remade Western society, not once but repeatedly. And we — or rather, our predecessors — were able to do so because we knew a secret: the secret of how to bring change about.

That is why we Friends today belong in the environmental arena.

And the nature of the work that we are needed to do there is what I propose to discuss here.

(To read the next part of this essay, click here.)

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Reader Comments (2)

I truly appreciate being willing to look at this world in awe and respect, but I must comment on something I read at the beginning of the page. I understand that you wanted to take your time to take in the geography of the country by driving at a walking pace when walking got too much for you, but this sounds like a waste of gasoline (something that's very bad for the environment!) Thank you for your thoughts, I enjoyed reading this. I wanted to put this into awareness. Just to add my own two cents to the topic of living in harmony with the earth, I personally believe that the earth has been through vast changes and will eventually bounce back from any humanly damage; however, we humans are much more fragile and if we want to continue living we must raise our consciousness to a much higher level.

May 4, 2008 at 08:53PM | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

Dear Elizabeth — Welcome to this web site! — and many thanks for contributing your comments.

I wish to reassure you that I did not do the sort of driving you thought I did. Something, somewhere, gave you a false impression. I didn't "drive at a walking pace". After my ankles gave out, I walked as far as I could each morning, doubled back to the car, drove at the legal speed limit to my destination, then backtracked on foot as far as I could, and walked back forward to where I was spending that night.

It was still gas-consumptive, but not nearly as much so as the policy you thought I followed!

In normal life I do minimize driving.

Now, as to your "bounce back" expectations: I greatly appreciate, and admire, your willingness to cherish such positive views. But I think it is also worth bearing in mind that there have already been many one-way, irreversible changes in this planet's evolution.

For example, geological studies indicate that the atmosphere has been thinning steadily all through the planet's history; concentrations have never once "bounced back" to previous levels. Biological diversity has never returned to the level it was at before the very first wave of extinctions, way back in the Silurian. Reptilian life never "bounced back" from the damage wrought by the meteorite at the end of the Mesozoic. And so forth.

Much of what humans have done, and are doing right now, has a comparable look of utter permanence. For example, now that the American camels and giant American beavers, the dodos and moas and Carolina parakeets, are gone, extinct, all wiped out by human activity, it seems quite impossible to get them back. Even if humans could find the DNA to reconstruct them from, the habitat they lived in has been as destroyed as they themselves have been.

Once humans have finished wiping out the amphibians, which we are well on the way to doing, there is no source from which they could reasonably be expected to return to existence, short of a miracle comparable to making the sun stand still.

At present we are seeing possibly irreversible changes in the tropical rainforests, particularly the Amazon: human deforestation is causing a drying that makes it increasingly difficult for trees to return to the cleared areas, or even to continue to flourish in the surrounding still-forested areas. The drying is also leading to mammoth lightning-triggered fires in the still-forested areas, which is further accelerating the deforestation and may in the end ensure that forests cannot return.

Since the Sun is getting progressively hotter as it ages, if human activities trigger a "Venus effect" (that is, tip the balance to a condition in which high greenhouse gas concentrations make it so hot that plant life cannot survive in large enough quantities to take the carbon back out of the atmosphere), that effect will almost certainly be rendered irreversible by solar dynamics. Twenty years ago the transition to a "Venus effect" was considered so unlikely as to not be worth serious consideration; today, with global warming triggering huge releases of methane from the permafrost, and killing off vast stretches of boreal forest, both of which changes are accelerating global warming, the "Venus effect" isn't looking so unlikely after all.

This planet, when humans first appeared, was wonderfully habitable and teemed with countless species. It is already degraded far below that state by human hunting, agriculture and industry. It is looking increasingly probable that what humans are doing now will wind up being irreversible in so many crucial ways that it will never return anywhere near that state.

I think self-honesty should compel us to realize that humanity's ecological sins may in the end prove impossible to undo. But for Jews and Christians, this should not be too great a surprise. After all, one of the foundational tenets of our religious tradition is (in the words of our eighteenth-century Friend Joseph Phipps) that "sin once committed cannot be undone".

May 7, 2008 at 07:55AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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