Gilbert Fowler White, one of the world’s foremost geographers and a member of the Religious Society of Friends, died in Boulder, Colorado, on October 5, 2006, a little more than a month shy of his 95th birthday.
His remarkable career as a scholar and advocate of social and environmental equity was reflected in the more than 50 awards he received during his lifetime, including the Public Welfare Award (the National Academy of Sciences’ highest honor), and the national Medal of Science, presented to him by then President Bill Clinton at the White House on December 1, 2000. Gilbert’s involvement with Friends included serving as president of Haverford College from 1946 to 1955 and chairing American Friends Service Committee from 1963 to 1969. His prominence among Friends receded markedly after that, yet paradoxically he may have been the most influential Quaker internationally, effecting over the last four decades perhaps more social change than did any other Friend. This paradox is the subject of this memorial article.
Following his chairmanship of the national AFSC in the Vietnam era, Gilbert remained an active member of Boulder (Colo.) Meeting and Intermountain Yearly Meeting. He was a particularly strong advocate of increased service opportunities for Friends, and he authored several articles in Friends Journal and Friends Bulletin regarding that need.
But apart from chairing various conferences for diplomats under the auspices of AFSC and subsequently the Quaker United Nations Office, he quietly retreated from involvement in Quakerism at the national level. Instead, he channeled his energy almost wholly into his career as a social scientist, where he became a central figure in such issues as management of natural resources (primarily water), the management of natural hazards, and the mitigation of losses due to natural disasters (primarily flooding). He was also a strong advocate and initiator of international scientific cooperation to address humankind’s increasingly unsustainable use of natural resources and the related global warming. In retrospect, his decision in 1970 to focus on his academic career and the associated environmental problems proved a blessing for our planet.
As his life and career progressed, Gilbert White became increasingly critical of what he viewed as AFSC’s modest efforts in "speaking truth to power" regarding issues of environmental stewardship and sustainability. He felt that governments, especially our own, had to be made aware of these issues and compelled to use scientific knowledge to manage resources and mitigate losses from extreme natural events such as floods, droughts, and earthquakes. Further he perceived that political and religious leadership regarding our rapidly changing and endangered global environment was sorely lacking. Without action, environmental losses and the violence spawned by growing inequities in access to resources such as water, soil, and energy would become unavoidable and irreversible.
Despite these concerns, Gilbert chose not to publicly criticize the AFSC agenda or its administration. Rather, he redoubled his own efforts to model by example his conviction that at least two basic precepts of Quakerism warranted reinterpretation and expanded application to help society address the grave environmental problems facing our times: first, the tenet of nonviolence; second, the Religious Society’s commitment to discernment of "a sense of the meeting" in decision making.
Gilbert White’s commitment to pacifism began with his resignation from ROTC at University of Chicago following a seminal conversation in 1928 with a campus guest speaker, the well-known Quaker and professor of Philosophy at Haverford College at the time, Rufus Jones. White’s experience and facility with Quaker decision making started a few years later when he began attending Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.). It deepened as he became more involved with AFSC—first as a volunteer during World War II assisting refugees in Vichy, France, and thereafter, until the end of the war, as AFSC’s assistant executive secretary in Philadelphia. Subsequently, after being appointed president of Haverford, he convinced the faculty to substitute "Quaker practice" for Robert’s Rules of Order in their meetings. He used and further refined his skills as a facilitator of group decision making while chairing the Chicago Regional Committee of AFSC and then the national committee during the 1960s while chairing the Department of Geography at University of Chicago.
Perhaps because his study of geography (defined at University of Chicago as the field of Human Ecology) coincided with his introduction to Quakerism (he was raised a Baptist), the sanctity of life that was central to Gilbert’s spiritual consciousness included not only respect for human life, but also respect for and stewardship of the ecosystems that sustain all life. This holistic, spiritual interpretation of human ecology was reinforced between 1934 and 1942 when Gilbert served in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s "New Deal" White House, first as staff secretary for a series of committees on land and water use that were part of Roosevelt’s innovative program of centralized planning for management of natural resources and subsequently as a staff member of the Bureau of the Budget, where he reviewed congressional initiatives concerning land and water and summarized proposed legislation for the President. This work and his later scholarship led to a seminal conviction central to Gilbert’s work: that humankind’s shared dependence on natural resources and vulnerability to nature’s extremes could be a tool for shaping nonviolent resolution of personal, local, national, and international differences.
This conviction was the basis for Gilbert’s inaugural message when he assumed the chairmanship of AFSC in 1963. At the time, he was simultaneously chairing a Ford Foundation mission assembled to advise the United Nations Mekong River Committee regarding options for cooperative management of the lower Mekong River drainage basin, which encompassed Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. This work proceeded throughout (and despite) the expanding Vietnam War. Indeed, he subsequently published an article in Scientific American and The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists entitled "Vietnam: The Fourth Course," which offered joint resource management as one approach to avoiding further conflict in the region. But to Gilbert’s disappointment his group’s recommendations, which were shared with and publicly acknowledged by President Lyndon Johnson, did not stop the slide of the United States into the conflict that Johnson feared and that became AFSC’s preoccupation for a decade.
Gilbert was comparably disappointed by AFSC’s lack of interest in adopting a more environmentally focused agenda during his tenure as AFSC chair as well as its rejection of his offer in the early 1970s, when directing an interdisciplinary Institute of Behavioral Science at University of Colorado, to work with AFSC to develop a program of environmental stewardship to augment the organization’s programs of human service and aid at home and abroad.
Despite these disappointments, Gilbert’s belief in the ability of environmental concerns and environmental stewardship to bring together human beings did not waver. Indeed, 30 years later he still felt that a key to managing the tensions among Jews, Christians, and Muslims worldwide was to mute the religious and ideological differences by promoting collaborative negotiations among these groups regarding stewardship and more equitable distribution of the limited resources upon which people of all faiths depend. To this end in the late 1990s, at the invitation of the U.S. Academy of Sciences, Gilbert chaired a National Research Council Committee on Sustainable Water Supplies for the Middle East, which was a committee of water experts representing the national academies of Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and the West Bank. Previously he had chaired several committees in and out of government that addressed different but comparably contentious environmental issues. Those issues included determining a policy of sustainable energy use for the United States, managing the nation’s floodplains (which led to the creation of the National Flood Insurance Program), and coping with the disposal of nuclear waste.
In chairing these groups, Gilbert insisted on certain ground rules, including, more often than not, the "sense of the meeting" precept. His procedure in chairing these scientific and policy meetings was little different from that of chairing a Haverford faculty meeting, an AFSC conference for diplomats, or a Quaker business meeting. His focus was as much on the process of the meeting as the outcome. He wanted to insure that all opinions were voiced and that all voices were heard. Even in contexts where no other participants were familiar with such practice, the essence of Gilbert’s "leader-as-servant" or "servant-as-leader" approach was truly to listen, in order to insure that the group and its decisions could benefit from the various views and truths that collectively would determine the best possible recommendation. His challenge and mission through this threshing process, as in any clerking, was to help discern that recommendation.
Inevitably, this process demonstrated that there is much that is worthy of being heard: the facts, including scientific findings on the subject; the vested interests of assorted audiences affected by the decisions; the opinions of persons in positions of authority and power responsible for implementation and enforcement of policies adopted; and, finally, cultural traditions and contextual experience. The latter included values and views regarding the moral issues at stake.
Mostly, Gilbert would say little or nothing about the Inner Light or "that of God within" as the basis for his decision-making ground rules. But he would share his conviction that only through everyone’s listening to the personal conscience and experience of every other participant could the group collectively discern the most appropriate path. Moreover, he discouraged representation of employer, agency, or government policy in favor of personal experience and conviction. Each participant’s personal input was insisted upon. The degree to which each participant did or did not agree with the final recommendation as articulated by the chair was to be voiced and, if requested, recorded for inclusion as an accompanying minority opinion.
When serving as chair, Gilbert always offered this option to others, and when serving on committees that he did not chair he usually would request for himself and others the option to offer a dissenting or alternative view. For Gilbert White, listening to the Light Within was subsumed under hearing all that bears on the issue. For him, the human mind and voice was the vehicle for conveying all such information—be it scientific knowledge, professional counsel, or spiritual insight. Group discernment based on such information was essential for achieving the best possible recommendation.
Whenever Gilbert was asked how his Quakerism informed his style of leadership, he was quick to explain that he joined the Religious Society of Friends because in his experience its basic tenets were efficacious. But he did not want others to assume that the approach he took and recommended for others was particular to Quakers. Accordingly, he seldom identified his leadership method as Quaker procedure. The approach often worked well, and many of those who knew and worked with Gilbert adopted it and used it in contexts far beyond what most Quakers might consider possible.
In September 2006 the Institute for Water Resources of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (to which Gilbert had donated his extensive collection of water-related papers and books) hosted an event focusing on Gilbert’s legacy of leadership. Among other tributes, it featured part of an hourlong interview with Gilbert taped by former president of the National Academy of Sciences Bruce Alberts. Regarding Gilbert’s work chairing the NRC Committee on Sustainable Water Supplies for the Middle East, Alberts had earlier remarked that possibly only a Quaker could have created the mutual trust needed for that group to collaborate under such trying circumstances. In the interview Gilbert set forth basic principles for chairing committees of the National Research Council of the NAS; the rules were equally applicable to clerking a Friends meeting for business or virtually any other decision-making gathering. Gilbert credited the Religious Society of Friends with much of his training in such leadership. He also indicated that his training and advisers were not confined to Quakers; in particular he also cited his early mentor, Abel Wolman, for whom he worked in Washington in the 1930s, as another model of effective group leadership and committee chairmanship.
Perhaps because many of his first mentors in effective leadership were not Quakers, Gilbert recognized that the approach of Friends could be—indeed, already had been—used to make important, lasting decisions in more secular contexts. Quakers wisely will avail themselves of any opportunity to use and encourage others to use that process for reaching uncommonly enduring decisions. As with the concept of nonviolence, seeking the sense of the meeting warrants broader application in reaching out to a troubled world too readily partitioned by religious ideology and terminology.
Gilbert White was as fully convinced of the sanctity of human life as were the more visible proponents of nonviolence of his era, notably Martin Luther King Jr., who Gilbert admired. Gilbert chose in addition to lift up the sanctity of the full gamut of threatened resources upon which our planetary survival depends. As a steward of resources thus defined, Gilbert surely was among the nation’s most visible practitioners of nonviolence by century’s end. Possibly only by focusing on the common ground of addressing our planet’s survival (including its multitudinous life forms) will we succeed in engaging the religious and ideological extremists who are righteously committed to killing each other. Could our Religious Society not do more through our institutions and meetings to raise up the leadership requisite for the critical dialogue—achieving a global "sense of the meeting"? White’s demonstration of this fundamentally sound, enlightened, and considerate approach to human discourse may be his most lasting legacy.