Ecological Integrity and Religious Faith

There is a growing recognition that the state of Earth’s ecological integrity is not just one more concern to be added to an already long list of concerns. There is a growing sense that to continue representing the ecological issue in our corporate forums as a "special interest" is to remain unresponsive to a central spiritual task of our time: readapting human settlement and economic behavior to the biotic integrity of Earth. The ecological situation is not a concern in the usual sense of the word, nor is it a special interest. It is the foundation of all concerns and the most general and comprehensive interest possible. It is both the given and created context out of which everything we care about and work for develops. The human/Earth relationship is the context in which all concerns are situated. Justice, equity, and peace as well as spiritual well-being have no other home than the human/Earth relationship in which to flourish or wither, as the case may be.

All the areas of human concern that Friends have traditionally addressed will be negatively affected by the ongoing, disruptive impact of human activity on biospheric integrity. Ethnic, political, and economic violence will be exacerbated. Human settlement, livelihood, and food production will increasingly be disrupted. Social and economic inequities will be magnified. Deficiency, stress, trauma, and disability disorders will multiply. Spiritual disorientation will spread.

All of these phenomena are already on the increase. Continued deterioration of Earth’s habitability will drive them all into more and more extreme forms. Given the Quaker heritage of bonding religious faith into the work of human betterment, it is difficult to see how we can avoid bringing the crisis in the human/Earth relationship into the center of our perspective.

In 1990 the World Council of Churches held a ten-day convocation in Seoul on Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation. This convocation identified the ecological disruption that will attend the advance of global warming as the preeminent threat to Earth’s communities of life. It further agreed that because human economic activity is contributing to global warming, this situation is an issue of fundamental religious import that must be addressed by the world’s communities of faith. A decade later the global warming issue is front and center on the witness and action agendas of many religious groups and associations.

Although the human patterns of ecological violation are manifold, the specter of ecological disruption that will accompany the advance of global warming rises like a particularly ominous thunderhead over the landscapes and shorelines of Earth. Human-induced, disruptive climate change epitomizes what is wrong with the current human/Earth relationship. It is a simple and incontrovertible fact that every day human activity is increasing the global warming problem. For those who have come into a full realization of this situation, the problem verges on the unbearable. It has a mind-numbing and spirit-damaging quality.

It is difficult to see how we can claim a clear sense of Divine presence while all around us the channels of energy on which we depend, and the patterns of economic activity that support us, are steadily grinding down and functionally disabling the integrity of creation. It is not just a matter of Earth’s environment becoming an increasingly less hospitable place. It is also a matter of increasingly losing the sense of the Divine as a whole Earth reality, as a cosmic loom interweaving all communities of life. The evidence of this cultural devolution is all around us. We cannot go on disrupting, breaking up, and laying waste to the functional relationships that compose the integrity of creation and expect to retain a viable sense of the Divine.

As ecological disruption develops, the issues of human adaptation will become increasingly skewed toward the struggle for bare survival on the one hand, and the struggle to defend wealth and access to the means of life on the other. This is already the situation we are in. As hard-edge survival and the protection of privilege become the dominant factors of social existence, it will become ever more difficult to bring ecological consciousness to bear on public policy. Nothing less than the ability to maintain an overarching faith, an encompassing sense of the Divine, and to work with conviction for the common good are now at stake in the unraveling of the human/Earth relationship.

If our faith is seeking a mode of expression and breadth of address in the world that reaches to the center of the human dilemma, it must move fully into the ecological worldview. This perspective will provide clear and useful openings at a fundamental level into all peace, justice, and equity issues and enable us to help reconceive the whole project of human adaptation to the environments of Earth.

With the imperative of ecologically sustainable adaptation firmly lodged at the center of our faith, we can then develop our work toward peace, justice, and equity in ways that contribute as fully as possible to a reweaving of the human/Earth relationship. Thus can we keep alive an encompassing and nurturing sense of the Divine. Even if we, and all others who are working in a similar way, do not succeed in moving our society out of its ecologically destructive ways and onto a sustainable path, we will at least know we have done the right thing. That may be small comfort, but it may also be the difference between a sense of faithfulness and the despair that will certainly overtake denial and inaction.

We have now come to the time when the options are perfectly clear: Either we continue down the road of unlimited economic expansion and increasing energy use until a convergence of ecological breakdowns stops our cultural momentum, or we place ecologically sustainable adaptation at the leading edge of human settlement and economic behavior.

This dilemma and this choice bear a striking resemblance to the issue of slave-holding with which the Religious Society of Friends struggled and on which it eventually came to a clear focus. In both cases the fundamental issues are the same: control and use of energy, economic productivity, convenience, aggrandizement, massive inequities, and the effect on the souls of all those who were and are enmeshed, in whatever capacity, in a system of unsustainable exploitation.

These similarities are not a coincidence. The end of slavery coincided with the full development of the machine-based factory system, expanding use of coal and the discovery of petroleum. The exploitive mindset and inequitable relationships of the old economy were continued in the new. This is why John Woolman’s observations on economic behavior and social relations continue to be highly pertinent to our time. Because the whole political economy was—and still is—driven by the unquestioned assumption of endless growth, no reflection on sustainable adaptation has ever gained a significant public hearing. The expanding frontier mentality and the vast "natural resources" of the North American continent allowed what historian

William Appleman Williams called "the great evasion"—not taking fully into account the fundamental values, attitudes, and relationships required to achieve a sustainable pattern of settlement and economic activity within the regional ecosystems of the continent. That great evasion has continued unabated to the present time.

As the Religious Society of Friends rose to the issue of slavery and eventually became clear on the kind of change that was required, so it would seem we might now rise to the issue of ecological degradation in general and the situation of energy use and disruptive climate change in particular. Although it was certainly not easy for Friends to become collectively clear about slavery, it may be even more difficult to achieve a sense of clarity and undertake effective action with regard to ecological degradation.

When Friends voluntarily gave up slaveholding, the primary economic activity of farming could still be carried on with the human energy of hired labor, which, as Woolman so eloquently pointed out, must also be seen within a moral context. But with the subsequent shift of the economy to machine-based manufacturing, fueled by coal and oil, the cautionary moral dimension around energy use disappeared. And in fact, with the new technologies a new morality of energy use arose that said, in effect, "the more the better." We now understand this era of high energy use has been a terrible adaptational mistake. Despite the undeniable advances in convenience that high-energy living affords, the damaging impact of this adaptational stance on the biotic integrity of Earth has now, as in the days of slavery, brought the moral issue to a very fine point.

Addressing the issue of energy use, and the way it exploits and damages Earth’s communities of life, is a difficult matter. Virtually everyone in our society, in some way, is living off the pattern of energy production and use that is damaging Earth’s biotic integrity and leading to increasing ecological disruption. Nothing less than a major readaptation of human settlement and economic activity is required to address this situation. Because the magnitude of our dilemma encompasses the whole adaptational stance of our culture, it reaches deeply into our spiritual life. It reaches right into the center of our understanding of ourselves within creation.

In response to the spiritual dimension of our ecological dilemma, a movement of witness and action is growing in communities of faith worldwide. Many individual Friends are deeply immersed in this work, but the Religious Society of Friends, as a corporate expression of faith, has yet to move decisively into this spiritual task. Varieties of minutes have been formulated and approved. Special interest groups have arisen. Committees and working groups exist. Some yearly meetings are supporting the efforts of their members who are called to work for ecological reformation. As good as all these things are, it still leaves us with the question of why no yearly meeting or widely representative Friends organization has stepped into a leadership position on the integrity of creation. In many instances individual Friends have been on the forefront of ecological reformation, but the Religious Society of Friends, as such, seems somewhat unfocused and muted on what is certainly one of the preeminent human dilemmas and critical dangers of our history. For a spiritual movement and community of faith that has been in the forefront of social innovation and human betterment for most of its history, this is a peculiar circumstance. One hopes that the old Spirit is just gathering strength and will, before long and at many collective points, move the Religious Society of Friends into clarity and action on behalf of creation and a sustainable human/Earth relationship. Thus will all of our traditional concerns and areas of work find a helpful context and a renewal of orientation.

In summary:

  1. The science around global warming and disruptive climate change is clear.
  2. The disruption by human activity of the biospheric conditions that have brought Earth’s communities of life to their present interrelated existence is a direct and blasphemous challenge to the goodness of God in creation. It is counterproductive to stable human settlement and sustainable economic activity. It is damaging to a sense of the Divine and to a viable, sustainable faith.
  3. We have the technology and the skills to reconstruct human settlement and economic adaptation within ecologically sustainable norms.
  4. At present we collectively lack the moral conviction, political will, and financial incentives needed to advance the work of ecologically sustainable adaptation significantly.
  5. Communities of faith, by virtue of their claim on a relationship with the Divine, are under the obligation of providing leadership on the integrity of creation issue and on the work of ecologically sustainable readaptation.
  6. Despite the ecological work that many individual Friends, groups of Friends, and Friends meetings have been doing, the Religious Society of Friends in the United States is notably absent from the ecumenical associations and religious coalitions that are working on the human/Earth relationship and the integrity of creation issue. Particularly with regard to addressing the ecological implications of public policy, this lack of Quaker participation in the wider religious dialogue would seem a lapse we should move to correct.

Can we transcend the special-interest view and the individualistic lifestyle response that seems to have settled over Friends’ approach to the ecological issue? Can we find a renewed sense of spiritual purpose in the task of reweaving all our concerns into a truly ecological worldview? Can we provide leadership in addressing public policy on behalf of the integrity of creation? Can we engage the practical tasks of readapting our shelters, our settlements, and our social and economic systems to the biotic integrity of regional ecosystems and to the Earth as a whole?

Keith Helmuth

Keith Helmuth, a sojourning member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, is a member of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Environmental Working Group and of Quaker Eco-Witness Coordinating Group. © 2001 Keith Helmuth