A Quaker Consultation on Economics and Ecology

Enlarging the Focus of Quaker Social Witness

Quaker Eco-Witness and the Earthcare Working Group of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting have jointly initiated a consultation on economics, ecology, and public policy among Friends. This consultation project has grown from the conviction that meaningful and effective corporate witness on economics and public policy must be an essential component of Friends work for justice, peace, and a restored Earth.

We seek to engage monthly meetings in the support of Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) with regard to advocacy for U.S. economic policies that advance social equity and ecological integrity. We see this kind of reorientation as essential if progress is to be made toward the peaceful prevention of deadly conflict.

Creating an economy based on distributing Earth’s bounty more equitably and ensuring the resilience of Earth’s biological productivity will require changes in the legal and regulatory framework within which markets and financial institutions function. This will require more knowledge and greater understanding on the part of many people than now exists in the general population or in the Religious Society of Friends.

A New Consultation

A new consultation, aimed at advancing this knowledge and understanding, began with an open meeting on May 20, 2003 at Arch Street Meetinghouse in Philadelphia on the theme, "The Growth Economy and its Future: What is the Moral Assignment for Friends?" This meeting prepared a report that was forwarded to the second meeting, a gathering held at Pendle Hill, June 13-15, 2003.

The gathering at Pendle Hill brought together 29 persons, belonging to 19 monthly meetings and 11 yearly meetings. The gathering included economists, ecologists, economic development practitioners, and public policy and management professionals. The idea behind the gathering was to assemble a group of persons who were interested in taking up the work of this consultation drawing upon their professional skills, their commitment to the Religious Society of Friends, and their understanding of Quaker testimonies.
The purpose of the gathering was to explore a shared concern about economic policies as they relate to issues of justice, peace, equality, and the restoration of Earth’s ecological resilience, and to develop an ongoing consultation among Friends on economics, ecology and public policy.

The gathering was a synergistic event, the kind of event that creates a strong sense of collective focus. There are times when we have the sense that "things are in the air," meaning that many people are converging along the same lines of thought and around the same sense of an emergent reality. This was clearly the case at the Pendle Hill gathering with regard to understanding the ecological context of economic activity. This common understanding, along with considerable advance work by participants, made it possible for the two-day gathering to be used to maximum effect.

The following was accomplished:

  1. We united on an open letter "to Friends everywhere" expressing our concerns about economics, ecology, and public policy. The letter raises a series of questions related to Friends testimonies and invites meetings to request resource materials for study and discernment. The letter has been sent to all Friends meetings in the United States and Canada.
  2. We drafted the basic texts needed to develop a statement of guidance and purpose for the consultation and arrived at a project name—Friends Testimonies and Economics (FTE).
  3. A team of persons was assigned to work on the preparation of educational materials for the project. A six-session curriculum—Quaker Eco 101—has now been developed and field-tested in several monthly meetings, as well as at the 2004 Friends General Conference Gathering.
  4. A team of persons was composed to work on the development of a Quaker "think tank" (research institute). An institute of the kind envisioned is expected to be a significant information and analysis resource for FCNL, as well as for other Quaker organizations and for Friends in general. Guided by Friends testimonies, it is also expected to develop a professional role in public dialogue on issues of public policy and the common good. This project has now been named "Quaker Institute for the Future" (QIF). It is developing as a distinct entity, but with links to Friends Testimonies and Economics.

Friends Testimonies and the Human-Earth Relationship

We believe most Friends are to some degree aware that many aspects of our society’s economic activities are in conflict with Earth’s ecological integrity. Most Friends are somewhat aware that progress toward global justice and peace depends on restoring and maintaining the resilience of Earth’s ecosystems. We see the Friends Testimonies and Economics project as a way to prepare spiritually for a corporate witness on the most daunting issues of our time—a witness based on reweaving Friends testimonies into the full scope of the human-Earth relationship and into every aspect of human economic behavior.

Tom Head, chair of the Economics Department, George Fox University, and a consultation planner who was unable to attend the gathering at Pendle Hill, sent a letter in which he wrote: "Our task this weekend is not to find or articulate just the right economic model, nor is it to force a large problem into a small model, but, instead, our task is to open ourselves to some of the very largest questions facing humankind and to help each other toward ways of understanding and knowing what will help us faithfully and humbly respond to the enormity of what is before us."

Our work at the Pendle Hill gathering proceeded primarily in a worship-sharing context, ever mindful of the values about relationship that guide Friends sense of deliberation. In addition, we worked within a keen sense of the human-Earth relationship. That relationship in all its aspects—ecological, economic, social, and spiritual—is inseparable from our relationship with the Divine. A fully rounded understanding of the human-Earth reality leads to an expanded sense of community and to an experience of relationship in which the presence of the Divine is always potential. Such was the setting that gave rise to Friends Testimonies and Economics and to Quaker Insitute for the Future.

Quaker Heritage

As we begin these projects, it is heartening to remember the heritage in which we walk, and to which we are making a contribution. In particular, we should remember John Bellars (1654-1725), who thought out and wrote up a great range of social and economic reform proposals based on Friends insight into the learning process and the Quaker ethic of equality. Although regularly rebuffed by the English Parliament to which he appealed for support of his social reforms, many of his concepts eventually became foundational to Britain’s modern political economy, including colleges of vocational training, economic cooperatives, and universally available healthcare. On the U.S. side, John Woolman is a primary Quaker voice on economics and social justice. His writings, although brief, are a beacon of guidance, and his life and actions a continuing and compelling example.

The economic crisis of the 1930s drew Friends into a close consideration of governance and public policy issues. At that time, Friends General Conference had an Industrial Relations Section, which, in turn, had a Social Economics Committee. In 1934, this committee prepared a detailed report on the political economy of the U.S., along with policy recommendations based on Friends testimonies. The report was sent with a covering letter to Friends meetings. The letter opens with the following paragraph:

Nothing affects our life today as the economic situation affects it. Our mental outlook, our spiritual outlook, our physical well-being, our institutions, all are so involved in the modern economic whirlpool, there is indeed good reason for the interest manifested on every hand. Unfortunately, people have little time, perhaps little inclination to dig into the truthfulness of the views that are presented to them in their favorite newspapers or magazines, and so their opinions are frequently unsound, untenable. There is real work for those who have an active concern for the well being of their fellow-men, if only it be the setting forth of current problems in a way that they can be easily understood.

It is both sobering and encouraging to realize how closely these words—written 70 years ago—capture a substantial part of the perspective and motivation of the Friends Testimonies and Economics project. During the ensuing decades, American Friends Service Committee and Friends Committee on National Legislation have continued to address a variety of economic policies and practices. Now, with the convergence of the social justice, peace, and ecology movements, a concern for economic policy on a national and global scale is again emerging in a way that clearly engages Friends testimonies.

It was noted at the Pendle Hill gathering that Kenneth Boulding, a Quaker economist, initiated a project in his latter years called "Quaker Studies on Human Betterment," and this project was the direct antecedent of the consultation we were commencing. It was also noted that Kenneth Boulding was among the first social scientists to recognize the full ecological context of human economic activity. In 1966 he published a now classic paper on this theme titled, "The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth." Two years previous, in his Backhouse Lecture at Australia Yearly Meeting, he introduced another concept that also guides and motivates our consultation project. His lecture was titled "The Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism." In that lecture, and in the pamphlet published by Pendle Hill under that title, Kenneth Boulding wrote the following:

I suggest the Society of Friends has a great intellectual task ahead of it, in the translation of its religious and ethical experiences and insights into a conscious understanding of the way in which the kind of love which we treasure and covet can be produced, defended and extended. . . . If it can respond to this vision its evolutionary potential may be great indeed.

Why, however, should a religious society have an intellectual task—surely this should be left to the universities! The answer is that the task in question is spiritual as well as intellectual, in the sense that it involves not merely abstract knowledge, but love and community. . . . The great search of man today is for a human identity which will permit him to live in peace with all his fellows. [In] the Society of Friends we do have a foretaste of the "human identity" and the true world community for which we all long. In the establishment of this world community the Society of Friends has a great pioneering work to do.

It is from this perspective that Friends Testimonies and Economics and Quaker Institute for the Future invite Friends and Friends meetings to become part of the consultation network that is developing around these projects. For information on FTE, contact Ed Dreby, drebymans@igc.org, (609)261-8190; for information on QIF, contact Keith Helmuth, ekhelmuth@mindspring.com (215)545-3417.

Keith Helmuth

Keith Helmuth is a sojourning member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting and a member of the board of directors of Quaker Institute for the Future.