A Spiritual Journey

The term "Earthcare" gained general acceptance beginning in the late 1980s to distinguish Spirit-led concern for living in right relationship with all of Creation from "environmentalism," which focuses on outward reforms in such secular areas as laws, education, and technology. We also needed a unique descriptor that we could define for ourselves, to decrease the chance of misunderstanding or malicious distortion.

Earthcare can be defined as "healthcare" on a planetary scale, which includes the concept of that proverbial ounce of prevention that’s supposed to be as good as a pound of cure. Thus we would follow that precautionary principle in protecting the health of the living planet for the same reason that we make healthy lifestyle choices as individuals, in order to avoid or delay the onset of diseases and disabilities later in life. We would recognize and properly value the ecological services, such as waste and nutrient recycling, that the Earth has been providing freely and efficiently for millions of years, for the same reason that we appreciate how well our bodies take care of us when not abused or neglected.

On the other hand, Earthcare isn’t just another name for holistic resource management. Despite all that has been learned about climate change, deforestation, and species extinction, these and a host of other planetary maladies continue unabated. Rational problem-solving is important but not sufficient if we are to survive the challenges ahead. We need to connect with the Earth on a spiritual, intuitive level as well. Earthcare offers a pathway for learning how to do that.

Jack Phillips, a leading figure in the founding of Quaker Earthcare Witness, seems to have coined the term "Earthcare." In his booklet Walking Gently on the Earth: An Earthcare Checklist, published in 1989, he wrote that significant changes in how we treat the Earth will not take place until we cultivate a different sense of who we are in relation to the Earth. Just as we are more likely to eat right, exercise, and avoid harmful substances when we are aware that our bodies are a dwelling place of Spirit, we are also more likely to respect the Earth’s ecological limits and to come to its defense to the degree that we see the Earth as part of the miracle of God’s Creation and to the extent that we see all living creatures as our neighbors.

So how do we go about cultivating a different sense of who we are in relation to the Earth? For hundreds of thousands of years humans were weak and defenseless compared to many other creatures. It was natural under those conditions to acquire a fearful, adversarial attitude toward the natural world. But with the dramatic increase in human population and the growing power of modern technology, the tables have turned, and we are now seriously disrupting the entire planet’s life-support system. Someone once compared the Earth to a giant spaceship, implying that if we just had a good operating manual all would be well. But the truth is that the Earth is a miraculous living organism, self-regulating and self-healing when we allow it to function that way. Our present crisis stems largely from the misguided notion that we can manipulate and subvert the planet’s infinitely complex processes for narrow and selfish ends.

So it is we humans who need to change. Outwardly we need to curb drastically our consumption and reproduction. Inwardly, we need to think and act more humbly and rediscover the lost joys of simpler living. We need to care more deeply about the size of our ecological footprints and the concepts of quality of life we are passing on to future generations. Such caring can be expressed daily in big and small ways, from picking up litter to serving meals at a soup kitchen, from replacing incandescent lights with compact fluorescent bulbs to working on a community’s energy task force.

Humility, simplicity, and good works are the same virtues that John Woolman promoted among Friends some 250 years ago. He rejoiced when Truth opened the hearts and minds of those to whom he ministered, but it also distressed him greatly when many people with whom he talked were still unwilling or unable to change. Mindful that we experience the same resistance to change today, Jack Phillips drafted a pamphlet several years ago titled Earthcare and Soul Care, in which he suggested that the principles of twelve-step programs might help us overcome our addictions to consumerism and other ecologically destructive habits. At the heart of the twelve-step process, he explained, is the admission that we can’t beat addiction without outside assistance. The necessary strength and resolve come from belonging to a supportive community of people who share the same concerns and confess to the same weaknesses, plus regular communion with our Higher Power.

Through his creative insights, Jack Phillips has shaped the current vision and practice of Quaker Earthcare Witness. Although personal health problems have prevented him from participating actively in recent years, we continue to appreciate his unique and wise contributions to the evolving Earthcare movement.

His analysis reminds us that Earthcare is essentially a corporate witness, integral to virtually all of the issues, including peace and justice, that Friends embrace as a faith community. At the same time, we need to see the process of learning to walk more gently on the Earth as part of a deep spiritual journey, drawing on the same Higher Power that has made the Religious Society of Friends an effective force for healing and change for 350 years.

Louis Cox

Louis Cox is publications coordinator and Ruah Swennerfelt is general secretary of Quaker Earthcare Witness. Both are members of Burlington (Vt.) Meeting. This is the second in an ongoing series of "Earthcare" columns.