By Eileen Flanagan
Quakers are generally optimistic about change. From our personal spiritual lives to our engagement with social issues, we hold that what we choose matters and that, if we pay attention, we can be guided in our choices directly by God.
Today, a growing number of Quakers are feeling called to change our relationship with the earth. Urgency about climate change is energizing us, along with the observation that our current way of life does not promote the values we profess–peace, simplicity, equality, and integrity. Seeing the connection between our dependence on oil and continual war in the Middle East, for example, helped motivate Quakers to “green” buildings such as Friends Center in Philadelphia and Friends Committee on National Legislation’s headquarters on Capital Hill. FCNL’s geothermal heating and green roof are meant to model the change in priority the organization lobbies for in Congress.
Recently, however, there has been an uncomfortable sense that God is calling us to make and advocate for changes more difficult and radical than adding solar panels or a green roof. Spiritually, we are aware of the sacredness of all beings. Logically, we can’t see how all beings can flourish if our definition of economic prosperity demands that we consume more and more of the earth’s resources. We realize with discomfort that an economy that depends on continual growth and fossil fuels is not sustainable in the long term and that we are deeply invested in this economy, both individually and corporately.
This growing sense of unease was evident at the 2009 summer sessions of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, a collection of Quakers from Eastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey, Delaware, and Eastern Maryland that has met annually for 329 years. During one panel on “Earthcare,” we were challenged to reduce our carbon footprints (the amount of energy expended to sustain our lifestyle) and to engage in direct, non-violent action like that used by the civil rights movement. Many people were inspired. “I’m ready to hear the most radical thing you can say to us about what we have to do,” said one man. “Show me the way,” implored another, who noted he would be heading home in a gas-fueled vehicle to a busy life.
In response, panelist Hollister Knowlton, a leader of Quaker Earthcare Witness, suggested we calculate our carbon footprints to measure our own complicity, a message she felt fell flat. Her second suggestion, that we call our senators and ask them to strengthen the disappointing Waxman-Markey climate change bill got a bit more response. Carl Magruder, a panelist who works for the National Council of Churches, addressed directly the concern about driving home in a car. “We do not have an answer, and it causes anguish,” he acknowledged. “So, let us be together in that brokenness.”
Brokenness and complicity are not overstatements. I offer myself as an example. Although I know that locally grown, organic, non-processed vegan foods do the least harm to the earth, they comprise a small portion of my diet, which includes more pepperoni pizza than I’d like to admit. I buy locally grown food when convenient, but haven’t taken many steps that are inconvenient. My efforts at reducing my direct energy use have been similarly half-hearted. Although people often confuse us with the horse-and-buggy driving Amish, I drive a Prius, even when I could take the bus. In fact, Quaker Earthcare Witness has found that most American Quakers have a footprint the size of the average American–five times what studies say would be a “fair share” of the earth’s resources.
After the Earthcare panel, when I tried to imagine an action equivalent to defying segregated lunch-counters or boycotting the Montgomery buses, I was struck with the difficultly of picking comparable “targets.” This time there is no “them” that can be changed without changing ourselves–though when I later said this to social change trainer George Lakey, another of the Earthcare panelists, he argued that there never was a “them.” Social transformation has always involved changing our selves and changing institutions. He gave the example of confronting his own racism, even while getting arrested at civil rights sit-ins. Today, we might take the bus more, while hold accountable the powers that killed the electric car. We might cut down on pepperoni, while protesting the practices of agribusiness that shape the choices most Americans make.
The willingness to confront both our own failings and the ways of the prevailing culture are among the qualities that have enabled Quakers to influence history out of proportion to our numbers. In the mid-18th century, John Woolman felt called to work against slavery by gradually ridding his own life of products made by slaves and by lovingly confronting fellow Quakers who held others in bondage. A few decades later, British Quakers helped organize to end the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire, efforts than many at the time predicted would ruin the economy.
When it comes to transforming our relationship with the earth, we don’t have the centuries it took to end slavery, but we don’t have to despair, either. Part of feeling called is having faith that the means will be revealed and that when we are moving with the Spirit, we are able to act, broken or not. As FCNL Executive Secretary Joe Volk put it during the Earthcare evening, “We don’t have to wait for the old world to die before we can start living in the ways of the new world.” We are still groping for those ways as we join other voices calling for a changed world.
Eileen Flanagan is a Quaker author, teacher, mother, activist and author of the new book The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change-and When to Let Go. She offers workshops on Quakerism and serves as assistant clerk of her Quaker meeting.