Saturday, April 24, 2010

Honoring Friends Who Care About the Earth on EarthDay

On this the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day I’d like to lift up some Quakers who have played a key role in raising consciousness about environmental concerns among Friends. I will also share a little about my own work editing a book called EarthLight: Spiritual Wisdom for an Ecological Age (

First, I’d like to commend Marshall Massey who gave a passionate and prophetic message about climate change and the environment at Pacific Yearly Meeting’s annual session at Laverne College in Laverne, CA in 1985. Marshall's presence and witness had a galvanizing effect on Friends, and many see this event as the beginning of the Quaker environmental movement in the United States.

Not all Friends were impressed with Marshall’s prophetic words, but many became convinced that environmental concerns should be taken as seriously as the abolition of slavery and nuclear weapons. Together Massey and another Friends Bulletin editor by the name of Bob Schutz helped to launch EarthLight magazine (about which I’ll say more later) as well as the Friends in Unity with Nature Committee, later renamed Quaker EarthCare Witness (QEW).

Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Unity with Nature Committee (UWN) has had its ups and downs over the years. The sizzling summer of 2006, when the reality of global warming finally penetrated the reality-averse American consciousness, was in many ways the Committee’s nadir. Many Friends came to PYM’s 2006 annual session deeply distressed by Al Gore’s documentary “Inconvenient Truth” and were eagerly looking forward to a plenary session focusing on the environmental crisis. Imagine our shock and dismay when the clerk of UWNC proposed that this committee be laid down because interest in the committee had waned and no one wanted to serve as clerk!

Fortunately, Joe Morris, a retired college professor from Santa Monica Meeting, stepped into breach and agreed to take the job that no one else wanted. Over the past year his good sense and tireless efforts have revitalized the Quaker environmental movement in California. He helped to craft a minute on global warming that has become the most widely discussed and seasoned minute that I have seen or heard of during my 20 years as a California Friend. Sixteen meetings have approved versions of this minute, and it was also approved by Pacific Yearly Meeting during a deeply spiritual session. More importantly, Friends are changing their behavior in significant ways. Here are some signs of change:

  • The clerk of Friends Bulletin, Stephen Matchett (San Francisco, CA), refrains from traveling by car and plane; instead, he uses public transportation and a bicycle to make his rounds as an active public Friend.
  • At Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting in 2006, two Western Friends—Carl Magruder (Grass Valley, CA) and Doris Ferm (Bellingham, WA)—gave plenary talks about the environment from a Quaker spiritual perspective.
  • Karen Street (Berkley, CA) has been traveling among Friends, urging them to take seriously the need to curtail greenhouse gases, even if it means supporting the use of nuclear power (which many experts say is needed if we are to avert global scorching).
  • Some Northern California Friends observe a “car-free” First Day, using public transportation instead of driving to Meeting.
  • Strawberry Creek Meeting encourages its members to contribute a dime per mile into the “Dime-o-saur” for every gallon of gasoline they consume while driving or traveling.
    Some Meetings encourage members to use locally grown and organic produce at potlucks.
  • A group of Friends called the “Animal Kinship Committee” are promoting vegetarianism for environmental as well as humane reasons. During a panel discussion at Pacific Yearly Meeting’s annual session, Kate Carpenter (Orange Grove Meeting, Pasadena, CA) explained why meat production is a major source of greenhouse gas. After presenting compelling evidence, she quoted former-ranger-turned-vegetarian Howard Lyman who observed: “A vegan driving a hummer produces less greenhouse gases than an omnivore riding a bicycle.”[1]
  • In 2008 Rolene Walker (San Francisco, CA) did a 6,000-mile “Walk with the Earth” from San Francisco to Santiago, Chile. Environmental as well as other Quaker concerns were highlighted during her trek. For more information see
  • Sandy and Tom Farley (Palo Alto, CA) recently edited a revised edition of EarthCare for Children, a First Day School for Children (available through QEW).
  • The posthumous publication of The Sanctuary of All Life (also known as Cow-ballah) by Quaker environmental “prophet” Jim Corbett has led many Friends to ponder more deeply the religious implications of environmentalism. Corbett’s environmental legacy lives on not only in words but also in deeds, thanks to the Cascabel community. This group of Friends in Arizona was inspired by Corbett’s example and seeks to live in an environmentally and spiritually faithful relationship to the Sonoran desert.
  • Ruah Swennerfeld and Louis Coxe, directors of Quaker EarthCare Witness (QEW), the national Quaker environmental group, walked from Vancouver, BC, to San Diego to raise consciousness about environmental concerns among Western Friends.

When I served as editor of Friends Bulletin, I did my bit by editing and promoting a new book called EarthLight: Spiritual Wisdom for an Ecological Age. This book has had an enormous impact on many Friends and non-Friends here in the West and around the nation.

Since its beginning fifteen years ago, EarthLight magazine has helped Friends and other people of faith to see the moral and spiritual underpinnnings of the environmental movement. The first four issues were edited by Chris Laning, a Friend with a deep commitment to Quaker spirituality as well as to the environmental movement. During her editorship, EarthLight published many outstanding articles by Friends who were trying to understand environmentalism from a Quaker spiritual perspective. Its next editor, Paul Burks, was a Methodist minister deeply influenced by the ecumenical movement and by process theology. EarthLight soon evolved into something more than simply a vehicle for exploring the ecological dimension of Quaker spirituality, however. It became truly interfaith in its outlook. In 1996 the editorship passed to K. Lauren de Boer, who broadened (and deepened) the spiritual perspective of EarthLight even more. Lauren’s ecological perspective was shaped to a great extent by philosopher/paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, cultural historian/“geologian” Thomas Berry and mathematical cosmologist/visionary Brian Swimme—the founders of the “Ecozoic movement
EarthLight magazine published articles by many of the world’s seminal figures in secular and religious thought about the place of humankind in Creation. The EarthLight book embodies what its editors feel is the best of this magazine as well as of Quaker writings on spirituality and ecology during the past 20 years. It includes such notable writers as Johanna Macy, Maya Angelou, Gary Snyder, Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, Thich Nhat Hanh, Keith Helmuth, Rex Ambler, Jim Corbett, Louis Cox and Ruah Swennerfelt, to name only a few.

Up to now, I have not considered myself an environmental activist, but like many other Friends, I have been concerned about the environment for many years. I do what I can to re-cycle, reuse and to reduce my consumption of fossil fuels. But like most Americans, I am still addicted to oil. Or maybe it’s better to say, I’m in a recovery program. It’s called the “spiritual ecology movement.”

Like many addicts, I need all the help that I can to deal with a very serious addiction that not only impacts me but the world I live in and love.

I also know that it’s not enough for me to heal myself of this addiction. I need to work with others to find spiritual and social solutions to this global crisis.

As a recovering fossil fuel addict, I have found EarthLight very helpful. As I have read and meditated on the writings of EarthLight, my appreciation for the sacredness of life and of the earth has deepened and I feel motivated to do more than I have done in the past to help heal the earth. I know now that the earth and I are not separate but one body, as Joanna Macy points out in her essay “The Turning.” If the earth is feverish, and dying, then so am I. What I do to help preserve the earth I do for myself and for those I love.

As a result, my behavior has also changed in sometimes small, and sometimes dramatic ways. I feel as committed to helping to preserve the earth as I felt committed to helping my mother when she was dying of cancer twenty or so years ago. When I use cloth bags instead of plastic, when I walk or bike instead of drive, when I hang up clothes to dry instead of using a dryer, I feel as if I am doing these actions out of love for the earth, the source of life. And when I contact my legislators to prod them about environmental legislation, I also feel what John Woolman called “a motion of love.” If your loved one were dying, wouldn’t you be motivated to do all you could to make that person healthy again? And if you yourself were sick or dying, wouldn’t wellness be your top priority?

My hope is that the inspired witness of environmentally conscious Friends have will effect the way all of us see the world, and the way we act in the world. And I hope that the re-birth of the Quaker environmental movement here in California will inspire Friends everywhere to do what is necessary to preserve our precious planet.

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