Odyssey of a Quaker Earthcare Activist

During an adult forum after meeting for worship in 1970, I had a "conversion experience" that altered the course of my life.

The forum presenter, a chemistry professor from a local college, was one of the early voices crying in the wilderness, trying to convince people that the planet was facing a serious ecological crisis. He faced a hard sell, however. The year before, the United States had sent astronauts to the moon. Our nation’s faith in technology reigned supreme. People tended to be very optimistic about the future.

Like many others, I was aware of and concerned about specific environmental problems—the smog that hung over the city I lived in, news of a river in Ohio that was so polluted that it once caught fire, declining brown pelican and eagle populations because DDT in the food chain was weakening their egg shells. But up to then I viewed these problems as local issues, appropriately addressed by specific technology, education, and legislation.

Our guest speaker that day explained very effectively how the world scientific community was assessing the overall health of the planet. Because of the combined effects of all the local environmental problems, all of the Earth’s interconnected life-support systems were now in serious decline. More telling was the speaker’s assertion that the current economic system depended on depleting the Earth, not on maintaining its good health. At the heart of this crisis was a mode of thinking that seemed to be at odds with the natural processes of the planet.

It was devastating for me to hear that the Earth, our mother, was in fact dying, and that I was a party to its inexorable destruction. The future I had envisioned suddenly vanished, the script for my career and life’s plans shredded into confetti. As I walked out of the meetinghouse that day, I knew that I must begin changing my life immediately. I desperately wanted to stop doing those things that were robbing from the future and to dedicate my life to restoring the Earth’s health.

My receptiveness at that moment had a lot to do with the spiritual sensibilities that had led me to Quakerism and were being nourished there. It was becoming more important to live with integrity, to bring my personal behavior into line with my professed values. But it did not occur to me to seek support for this newfound concern within my meeting. Some Friends in my meeting were practicing simple living, which they often linked to the testimonies of peace and equality. But no one talked about their Quaker faith as a source of guidance and inspiration for living more lightly on the planet.

Acting as best I could on my own, I started reducing, reusing, and recycling. I drove less and bicycled more. I joined a local "Educated Consumers Organization" that lobbied legislators and handed out leaflets in front of stores. I went to countless rallies and demonstrations—until the predictable activist burnout set in a year or so later. Like many others, I felt overwhelmed by the apathy and inertia of U.S. society. It all seemed so utterly hopeless.

I finally decided that the best way I could lighten my environmental impact was to leave the big city. I joined the "back to the land" movement and spent many years happily establishing an organic homestead in the rural Ozarks. Anticipating a worsening ecological situation, I worked hard to make my household more self-reliant in food production, heating fuel, water, and the like.

For cash income, I worked as staff writer for a local daily newspaper, which gave me an opportunity to publicize environmental issues. But I also observed that many natives of the region tended to treat the new wave of homesteaders and their environmental concerns with disdain. While I enjoyed acquiring practical country living skills and learning more about the natural world, I began seriously to doubt that individual homesteaders would be any better off with the surrounding world going to pieces and neighbors who weren’t particularly sympathetic to their unconventional lifestyles and views.

My misgivings intensified during a Friends gathering in the Midwest that I attended in the late 1980s. Elise Boulding, the main speaker, related a personal experience that had influenced her decision to become a lifelong peace activist. She and her family had emigrated from Norway when she was a young child, only a couple of years after the end of World War I. While growing up she was always horrified by images of the destruction and suffering that the Great War had caused. As a teenager in the late 1930s, when another major war in Europe seemed likely, she found some comfort in the thought, "I can always go back to Norway, where I would be safe." She was deeply shaken when the Nazis invaded and occupied Norway at the outset of World War II. She realized then that there was no longer any place in the world where a peace-loving person could simply hide from trouble. The only way to be safe is to work for peace and justice for all and thus to eliminate the root causes of conflict. Out of this realization, her life’s calling emerged. Significantly, she found the support and guidance she needed in the traditions and practice of the Quaker faith.

I readily saw a parallel between Elise Boulding’s story and my own role as a conscientious objector to modern industrial society’s war against nature. I saw the truth that the world had become too small for individual withdrawal to be a viable option. I was convinced that it was time to take what I had learned in my years of homesteading and journalism and to engage the powers again as an "Earthpeace" activist.

But how could I avoid frustration and burnout this time? Fortunately, it was about then that I learned of a group of Quakers who had started a North American environmental organization called Friends Committee on Unity with Nature (FCUN, later renamed Quaker Earthcare Witness). "My heart did leap for joy" (to borrow George Fox’s phrase) at the prospect of finding both a spiritual home and supportive community for my environmental concerns. I began subscribing to their newsletter, BeFriending Creation.

When I visited the Unity with Nature Center at the FGC Gathering in 1990, I had the same feeling that many people report after attending a Friends meeting for worship for the first time—that I had come home. Here I found committed Friends articulating the beginnings of a Quaker Earthcare testimony. This is what had been missing in my earlier frantic environmental activism—an understanding of the spiritual transformation that is essential to curbing humans’ ecologically disruptive behavior.

At the FCUN annual meeting that fall, I was invited to become a member of the steering committee. My writing and publishing skills were quickly recruited, and I was put to work as a volunteer creating basic pamphlets and booklets for the fledgling organization. I started contributing to the newsletter and later became clerk of the publications committee. My graphics skills were also used in making posters and displays for exhibits at Quaker gatherings.

In the mid-1990s I became editor of BeFriending Creation. I was able to travel to Quaker meetings and yearly meetings and to co-lead workshops and retreats to help spread the Earthcare message. I represented FCUN at several major environmental conferences. I was called on to edit or co-edit several major book projects that helped launch FCUN into an internationally recognized movement. I found this volunteer work very fulfilling, balancing paid work that was not completely in line with my values.

Most of us encounter numerous obstacles to leading an ecologically correct lifestyle—jobs, family situations, economic constraints, etc., that we see as keeping us stuck in a system that exploits both the Earth and other people. Several years ago I was given the extraordinary opportunity to get a little less stuck and move a little closer toward Earth-friendly living. I was invited to live in an off-grid, solar-powered home in rural Vermont. I also have a new partner in life who shares my deep concern for the Earth, as well as many other values. In addition, being able to use my previous experiences in organic gardening and country living skills, I now live in a loose-knit community where neighbors support one another. For me this new direction is not only a personal joy, but also an opportunity for witness, a ministry of showing others what an alternative way of living on the Earth might look like.

At the same time, my life is an example of some of the obstacles we all face because we live in an imperfect world. Because of the lack of adequate public transportation in my county, I have to rely too much on a private automobile. Many of my purchases still exact a toll on the Earth because I am still linked to a larger world that hasn’t yet learned to care. But at the heart of my new spiritual journey is finding joy in what is positive rather than focusing on difficulties or making excuses. That’s the Quaker activist’s answer to burnout.

More recently I have had the privilege of working as part-time publications coordinator for FCUN (now Quaker Earthcare Witness), where I experience the satisfaction of having paid work that is contributing to a better world. This is not as financially lucrative as the work I had been doing, but when I think back to that day in 1970 when I walked out of the meetinghouse desperately needing to live with greater ecological integrity, I can say with joy that my prayers have been answered.

Louis Cox

Louis Cox, a member of Burlington (Vt.) Meeting, is publications coordinator for Quaker Earthcare Witness and edits its newsletter and website, http://www.quakerearthcare.org.