Friends, this is not the talk I gave at Baltimore Yearly Meeting. This is an essay paralleling that talk, dedicated to all the loving friends who took an interest in my journey and helped make it possible — and based on the set of notes I used for the talk.
II. Business as usual, slightly modified?
So how do we get the environmental reforms our planet needs?
One suggestion I heard many times in the course of my walk, is that we could apply the standard list of liberal Quaker testimonies — you know the ones: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality (SPICE for short).
The idea has an intrinsic appeal; it seems a natural and proper approach for Friends. It has value, because those standard testimonies are of value in and of themselves. And certainly every one of the standard list of testimonies can be applied to some environmental issues in constructive ways.
But it may nevertheless be the wrong approach.
The weakness I see in it is that the standard liberal Quaker testimonies did not emerge as answers to environmental challenges. They were answers to quite different challenges — for example, the simplicity testimony was an answer to human vainglory. And since they were aimed at different targets, we cannot count on them to hit the environmental targets we need them to hit.
By way of illustration, let me call your attention to the issue of species extinctions. It’s one of the biggest environmental issues. A statement published in the July 20, 2006 issue of Nature — a very careful and well-respected scientific journal — co-authored by nineteen respected scientists, stated that nearly a quarter of mammal species, a third of amphibian species, and twelve per cent of bird species are now in danger of extinction, in nearly all cases due to human activities.
These species are our recycling systems. They make up the biosystems that convert our organic wastes into food, water, oxygen, shelter and fuel. They keep pests like insects under control, pollenate the plants, and — very important — provide us with non-human minds to dialogue with and keep us humble. Their extinction is definitely not something we can afford to take lightly.
But which of the standard testimonies leads us to think about the needs of endangered species? Which of them leads us to address it effectively?
On my journey here, I visited with members of eighteen different Friends meetings. Nearly every one of them brought up the standard testimonies, and talked about the environmental goodnesses they bring about; but not one person in any of those meetings mentioned the preservation of endangered species as being one of those goodnesses — or even talked about the issue of endangered species at all.
So there seems to be a disconnect there, where the logic of the standard liberal Quaker testimonies fails to connect in our minds with the needs of endangered species, and I’d say that’s a significant disconnect.
Even as regards the environmental issues that the standard testimonies do address, it’s a good question as to whether they address them adequately.
Take conservation, for example: the conservation of non-renewable resources like petroleum, and of renewable, but increasingly overtaxed resources like wood and fresh water. There is no question that our practice of simplicity makes a difference, and that, actually, our practice of equality, expressed in trying not to live at a higher level than our Third World sisters and brothers, makes a difference too.
— And of course, these things can make an even bigger difference if we can find the strength and courage to practice them at the level of John Woolman, instead of, say, at the level of Joseph John Gurney. Not that that will necessarily be easy for all of us!
But we Friends are only three one-hundredths of one per cent of the population of the United States, and we’re not as wasteful as the average U.S. resident. We’re much less than two one-hundredths of the population of the First World as a whole.
One can sit down with that information and calculate, and see that even if we reduced our consumption all the way to zero, it would reduce the world’s consumption by less than three tenths of one per cent.
So our simplicity, alone, is not enough to solve the problem.
In fact, not just in regard to consumption, but generally: because we Friends are so few in the world, we are not, by ourselves, the major cause of the problems.
Indeed, I think it’s quite likely the case that ninety-nine point nine nine per cent of the environmental destruction in this world, is being caused by the decisions of non-Friends.
What does this mean?
Certainly, that the real answers we can bring to environmental challenges like this will have to emerge from the same root that the familiar list of testimonies emerged from: the root of the Spirit, of Christ, of God-attentiveness; the root of sensitivity to what justice and mercy demand of us. And because they do so, they’ll have the same goodness. But I think they’ll nonetheless have to be substantially different answers from our old familiar ones.
And in particular — given our small numbers — if we want to be as influential in environmental matters as Friends were in the past, in all those other areas where Friends changed the world; if we want to be as much of the solution today as they were then, then self-reform can be only one part of what we do. In addition to self-reform, we simply have to find ways to be effective in outreach to non-Friends.
III. Outreach: the obstacles and the reasons to try
Now, one of the problems we face in regard to outreach is that the world has changed considerably since the seventeenth century.
Outreach on values issues, which is an inevitable part of what it’s needed to get people to make major changes in their lifestyles, was a reasonably acceptable thing in George Fox’s day, and even in John Woolman’s, if one did it right.
The reason for it being acceptable back then was that people really, truly believed in the Biblical world-view: it was generally understood that how one behaved would be of critical importance to one’s future in eternity, and there was ongoing public debate about what sort of behavior, and in particular what kinds and degrees of self-restraint, might be required.
When George Fox stood on back pews in churches, and when John Woolman buttonholed slaveholders in the privacy of their homes, their actions were part of that ongoing public debate: that’s why they were permitted to speak out.
Self-restraint, of one kind or another, is still the issue. It’s definitely the key to resolving environmental problems.
But social norms have changed. Calls for self-restraint are no longer heard as being intended for one’s own welfare, like medical advice. Instead they are felt as infringements on privacy, as infringements on an individual’s freedom to do as he pleases,and as infringements on the rights of business concerns.
Consumerism has replaced salvationism as the dominant force in people’s real-world decision-making. Even among evangelicals, there is a very widespread attitude that, when it comes to the question of salvation, it doesn’t matter what size vehicle you drive so long as you believe in Jesus.
One of the Friends I talked with on my long journey here is a Friend deeply involved in the debate over the construction of a new nuclear power plant in her neighborhood.
Now, I am not going to pass a ruling here on whether nuclear plants are better or worse than, say, coal-fired plants, in the balance. Or on whether this Friend’s area is in a situation where it can afford to do without either and move directly to solar and wind power. I have my suspicions, but my suspicions are on these matters are not the issue here.
The issue is that this is an area in which careful public seasoning is very desirable.
For example: the Federal government is taking no major precautions to ensure that a future terrorist attack doesn’t take out a nuclear power plant; and yet the blowing up of such a plant, anywhere upwind of a major U.S. urban area, could bring about a disaster far greater than Chernobyl.
Or again for example: if the power plant is in a rural or semi-rural area, the cost of properly decommissioning it when it has become too radioactive to operate further, and disposing of all the radioactive parts of the structure, may prove enough to bankrupt the entire local economy. These are unknowns a community needs to think through.
The Friend I talked with, on the way here, has been trying in vain to line up forums where these matters can be discussed. No church in her region will have her in to talk. No neighborhood association, either.
Such are the taboos against public discourse on things that matter. And in many places, as I think many of you already know, these taboos are reinforced by statutes: statutes against soliciting at malls, knocking on doors in covenant subdivisions, or harrassing employees or co-workers.
And beyond the taboo, there is also the fact that, even if we want to change our lives for the benefit of others, many people really do not. And the very idea that they might have to change — that the environmental situation might, in fact, make that monster RV of theirs, and that huge drafty McMansion, totally unaffordable — scares them so much that they simply will not hear anything about it.
I encountered people in this condition at many points along my journey. One that I particularly think about is a state park employee I met in West Virginia.
My conversation with this park employee started when one of his co-workers asked me, in his hearing, what I was doing, and I explained that I was walking, as best I could, across the country. Then the co-worker wanted to know why I was doing that, and I told the two of them how I’d been asked to speak on “living in harmony with all God’s Creation”. And I mentioned the great challenges involved, and I used the phrase “global warming.”
And when I did that, Friends, this park employee suddenly went into overdrive.
He took over the conversation immediately — and completely! — talking very, very quickly and rather loudly, and controlling everything that was said. “Well, you talk about global warming,” he began. “But you remember the ozone layer? You remember how that was supposed to be the same sort of problem? You notice nobody ever talks about it any more? Why was that, you suppose? — because the problem wasn’t real?
“How do we know the same thing isn’t true of global warming? You can find any opinion you want about it on the Internet; there’s no agreement.
“Remember how they used to say that the planet was getting cooler, that we were moving into an ice age? And now they say it’s heating up. Doesn’t the inconsistency bother them? How can they make anyone believe they really know what’s going on?”
And he went on and on in this sort of vein, throwing up one objection after another, without even pausing to see whether this was at all relevant to what the other two of us thought or cared about. His eyes weren’t really engaged with either of us. I certainly couldn’t get a word in edgewise!
It was as if he was using his little arguments like bricks, placing them as quickly as he possibly could between himself and me, to erect a wall between himself and what it was I represented in his mind.
He was afraid, Friends. That was what was going on there. He was afraid of what might turn out to be true. And so he was using his little routine to save himself from having to find out.
Well. I have now mentioned two obstacles to outreach: the first being the social taboos against it, and the second being other people’s fear of finding out that they might have to change.
I will now mention a third obstacle.
And the third obstacle is our own discouragement, when we consider the magnitude of the other two obstacles.
Let me speak for myself. Thinking about people like that park employee, I feel helpless. There’s no sure way for me to get past their defenses. And yet I know, it’s their attitude of denial, and their numbers, that prevent essential environmental reforms from being legislated into existence.
And when I let myself feel helpless, confronted with this situation, I am tempted in my turn to do nothing, too. To not even try to reach out. To just let it all happen.
And I know I’m not alone in feeling that way. I know many of you feel that way, too.
It’s so tempting for us to focus our attention on the safe question of how-else-can-I-simplify-my-life, and thereby sidestep the far more challenging question of how-do-I-reach-my-neighbors.
It’s tempting — and yet, I don’t think it can satisfy us. Not if we genuinely care about the welfare of the planet. Which I think we do.
So the task of coming in harmony with all God’s Creation turns out to be inseparable from the task of building harmony amongst ourselves.
(To read the next part of this essay, click here.)