One Way to Engage in a Quaker Witness on Economic Justice and Ecological Concern
I invite you to consider a relatively simple and straightforward action that could be especially rich and fruitful in its consequences.
God calls out to us in the voice of every suffering person on this globe who is in need of a good Samaritan. And God asks us not simply to give once, to help an individual, but to follow the advice Jesus gave the rich young man who wanted to be saved: "Sell all that you possess and give to the poor." But we, like him, turn away from this text in sadness, because we have so much, and we find it hard to see how to change. It is difficult to see how to arise today, to go out and meet God on Jesus’ terms. Yet perhaps given a more reasonable amount of time to work up to it, might we be able to imagine meeting God halfway?
God speaks to us not only in the voices of people but also in the signs of nature that show so plainly that the integrity of this Earth is being pushed beyond its resilience, beyond its ability to absorb and recover. Plain reason based on clearly established fact argues that the consumption of the Earth’s resources cannot be sustained at the level of the economically advanced countries today if the other citizens of the world catch up with them—let alone if we all continue to plunge ever upwards in consumption levels. One convergent set of estimates suggests that the Earth’s ability to function as our home can only be sustained if the typical person consumes about one-half of what the average person in the United States uses up now on an annual basis.
Simple reciprocity seems to demand that whatever level of consumption we set for ourselves should be one that others can aim at and practice. Some kind of relative equality in consumption patterns, in the long run, seems not only fair but also relatively inevitable. Why? Because others are not likely to agree to anything less. If we try to force others to accept unequal shares they can spoil our game by over- consuming themselves and thereby hasten the ecological crises for us all—or by taking up weapons of embargo, terror, or war to resist any continuing regime of global apartheid that leaves them out.
We live in a time of empire, just as Jesus did. And we are called to resist the domination of economic and political forces that aim at exploitation and conquest. But voices are distorted because they are spoken with votes that are unequally multiplied by the power of wealth. The plutocracy in which we live has clear rules to its game. In them a relatively small part is played by majority rule. Money counts more heavily, and unless and until there is money for the right things—"might for right"—we will continue to see a world in which the money of today, like the might in the days of King Arthur, "makes right." In Gandhi’s day, it was the willing obedience of millions of Indians that enabled a few hundred thousand British to rule their subcontinent. It was the withdrawal of that obedience and its redirection in civil action that led to the liberation of India. In our day, it is the control of millions of dollars of research, advertising, and campaign monies that enables a small elite to manipulate the votes of millions. It will only be by the redirection of money that we can achieve policies that reflect God’s love for all people and for all of creation—a world free from war and the threat of war, a society with equity and justice for all, a community where every person’s potential may be realized and an Earth restored.
One simple action we might consider taking is to adopt a plan to cut our consumption by 10 percent of its current level for each of the next five years, so that, after five years, we will have cut our consumption by 50 percent. We can take the remainder of our income and spend it either on direct aid to those in need, on political efforts to change the world, or on investments in natural and community capital that will restore the Earth currently being destroyed.
This action is simple in the sense that the basic step to be taken is relatively clear to understand and justify—though like any clear and reasonable action it requires appropriate application to the specific circumstances of peoples’ lives. The action is also simple in the sense that it is a step towards simplicity of living—though like any simplification of life, it can involve a subtlety and complexity of sensitive understanding.
Here are some questions that might be useful to reflect on in thinking about this proposal:
Is this something every Quaker should consider or only some?
I am clearly not laying this proposal on Friends as a rule to be followed but as a possible guideline to be considered. People who are already living on less than the poverty level of income (as many tax resisters have sought to do, for instance) may, in the coming few years, have occasion to appropriately consider raising their consumption levels to deal with healthcare, college costs, or other concerns that come at different points in our careers. Others with incomes much more than twice the median income may perhaps find that they should consider cutting their consumption to substantially less than half of their income.
In general, the relevant and appropriate ways to apply the intent of this guideline may be different for people at different stages of their lives. A young couple with two small children may find it much more difficult to make a transition in five years than a person whose children have finally graduated from college or who is retiring.
But for the Earth’s ecosystem to work, people on the whole planet need to consume on average no more than something like half of what the average person in the United States currently consumes. Since the average is made up of all of us, we all need to consider how our changes in consumption could and should affect the overall average.
Does this proposal mean that I should find a job where I make half as much money as I do now?
How is this different from the idea that we should reduce our incomes in order to simplify our lives?
It is very different because it does not ask you to reduce your income. In fact, for people at some points in life it may be appropriate for them to significantly increase their income. The aim is to reduce consumption—the part of our income we spend on goods and services that we consume for ourselves and our immediate family. This kind of consumption in the United States and other G8 countries, and among elites everywhere, is what prevents us from solving the problems of economic and ecological disaster. Instead of doing harm through consumption, you can help resolve these problems if you use your income effectively.
Part of the idea of the proposal is to set a goal that is doable enough for the average family to make progress on, in a period of time that is short enough (five years) in order to start moving us rapidly to the levels of consumption that would be equitable globally and sustainable ecologically. But another key point is that with the other 50 percent of our income, instead of doing harm through consumption, we can help resolve global problems—if we use our income effectively. We can do three kinds of important things: 1) we can give our income to projects that directly help poor people, through American Friends Service Committee, Right Sharing of World Resources, or Oxfam, for example; 2) we can invest our money in socially responsible enterprises that work to restore ecosystems and human communities, e.g., through South Shore Bank of Chicago, Pax World Fund, or local businesses or government bonds whose benefits and integrity we are directly familiar with; or 3) we can work for a different political future by supporting candidates and campaigns and then lobbying them through effective groups like Friends Committee on National Legislation.
Could I do it? Could I cut my consumption by 10 percent of my income this year, let alone every year for five years in a row?
One way to answer this is to look to folks who you work and live with and ask: Are any of them doing it? The answer is, almost certainly yes. Half of the people you know make less than the median income of the people you know. This is just true by definition. That means that you probably already know a good many folks living on even less than 90 percent of your current income. So they can provide examples of how to do it and tips for getting there in this next year. And, at that point, you may find that you now have a somewhat different group of folks with whom you are shopping, playing, or otherwise consuming—who will be able to help you figure out how to make the next year’s reduction of 10 percent.
Could I cheat by increasing my income instead of reducing my consumption?
That might not be cheating at all. Someone graduating from college might appropriately start making a great deal more income in the first year out—and even increase one’s consumption in appropriate ways by beginning to invest in a house or spend money on care for a new child.
If your children have grown and moved out of the house, it may be appropriate to rent out a spare room to bring in increased income that lets you give more for social change projects. In general, good stewardship would invite us to consider making good use of whatever spare resources we have and in some cases that may mean selling, renting, or using them in ways that generate increases in our income.
Why not just ask everyone to cut their income and consumption? Won’t we have to do this eventually for the Earth’s ecosystems to work?
There are many people who currently are living marginalized lives and who are in need. As part of a major economy with surplus, we are called to continue to generate economic resources for aid and investment and redirect them to the communities where they are needed. Furthermore, if everyone simply cut their incomes in half overnight, or simply cut consumption in half and saved their remaining income in banks instead of spending the money on aid, investment, or political action, then it would be very disruptive to the economy. It would probably put the economy into a tailspin that would destroy many communities and ecosystems. The proposal considered here is different. It is a call for economic conversion at a pace like the pace at which the U.S. economy converted when it entered—and then left—World War II military production.
Could I be happy living on 50 percent less than I consume now?
Polls asking people how much they would need to be happy typically indicate all they say they need is about 20 percent more. They say this no matter what income level they are at—at least until you get down to a very low level. Monetary consumption yields what economists call "diminishing returns."
But perhaps the question would be better put—Can I ever be happy if I don’t succeed in meeting God at least halfway? Or perhaps the question is really—What does my happiness come from?
As Friends, we are called to consider the notion that a quite delightful, long- lasting, reliable, intense joy comes from our direct awareness of the presence of God in all people, who are all children of God, and in the whole of nature that is the creation of God. Whatever helps us more directly attend to, and love, those people, and that creation, should be a very good source of joy.
Is this like tithing?
It is. We could think of it as an invitation to start with 10 percent and work our
way up. And it might make sense to channel resources through our monthly meetings. More importantly than any tax advantages that might occur, it might be helpful in a wide variety of ways to be working on reducing our personal consumption and choosing how best to spend the remainder of our income in community and support with other Friends.
Is this all going too far? Didn’t Jesus say, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s?"
When Jesus said that, he added, "and render unto God what is God’s." And he did this, clearly, to pose a question with which each of us must labor. How much of my wealth and holdings, how many of my talents and gifts, how much of my energy—how much of my life and being—is God’s? Once we have a clear answer to that question, perhaps we could figure out what "going too far" would be.
Since the community of Friends is so small, relatively speaking, will it really help all that much for us to undertake this witness?
If 10,000 Friends redirect $10,000 dollars each in the economy, that is $100,000,000. Depending on how this is invested it might have a considerable impact. For example, the 2000 presidential election in the United States was won with just $100 million. But it is perfectly true that this witness should be an example for others, calling on people everywhere to undertake a similar reform of their consumption. The basis for this call lies in the most basic of facts about our planet and the most basic of Christian principles. Conservative Christians like Governor Riley of Alabama have shown a readiness to take such a call seriously. We who worship in the tradition of John Woolman should feel led to witness to such a call with the clothes we wear, the things we eat and drink, the vehicles by which we travel, and the choices we make in our stewardship of income and wealth.
Is this a political proposal or a spiritual call?
Both. In practical terms, the core idea in this proposal is to provide a reasonable guideline that can be widely followed, which, if followed, will yield the kind of dramatic change needed to really address the economic and ecological crises we face.
But the underlying motive at stake is not to fix the world. It is to fix our souls. As long as we refuse to see the destructive consequences of our actions, we are living in denial, living in falsehood—living apart from that spirit of Truth that is the honesty in which God alone can be felt as present. As long as we treat ourselves as special and as exceptional, letting ourselves have more than others have or even can have, then we are living in a cocoon of egotism and pride and self that shuts out the concerns and voices and spirits of all those others who are children of God and through whom God is present. And we are shutting ourselves up in cages of "me" and "mine" and here and now, closing out the "we" and "ours" in all places and all times that is the Divine. As long as we are willing to defend our claims for special privilege by supporting the current system of empire and global apartheid, then we are not living, as George Fox said, "in the virtue of that life and power that [takes] away the occasion of all wars." Friends may be called, for the sake of their consciences and for the sake of their yearning to live in the presence of God, to give serious consideration to this proposal as one way of living out our testimonies for Truth, for Simplicity and Equity, and for Peace.