How to Talk about Earthcare

Talking about Earthcare with Friends and other people of faith has been one of our main tasks since setting out on a six-month, 1,400-mile Peace for Earth walk from Vancouver, B.C., to San Diego, Calif., in November 2007. (Find out more at The message we carry is one of both warning and hope.

In 1992, some 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists—including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences—issued an appeal entitled, "World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity." They declared:

Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.

Since then, most responses to the growing environmental crisis have involved relatively modest changes in laws, technology, and education. While greater efficiency, greener technologies, and conservation are important things to work on, alarming trends in population, consumption, and ecological stress show that more basic changes are urgently needed. Ultimately, we need to learn a different way of living on the Earth. And how we live is a reflection of who we believe we are and what we see as our purpose in life. That is a spiritual matter, not a scientific one.

The good news is that new modes of thinking and living are sprouting up around the world today—not unlike Quakers’ historic vision of the Peaceable Kingdom. Operating below the radar of the mass media are countless organizations and individuals who follow Mohandas Gandhi’s advice to "be the change you want to see in the world." They are living out the dream of everyone living happily and healthily together without paying a heavy price in wars, injustice, and environmental deterioration.

Learning from John Woolman

In carrying this message to Friends, we have also chosen to follow the pattern and example of John Woolman, who practiced a humble but effective style of communication in his traveling ministry to Friends some 250 years ago. Woolman was aware that his well-intentioned efforts to help Friends see the wrongness of slave-keeping—as well as the high living it supported—could backfire. An unfortunate choice of words might put his listeners on the defensive and render them incapable of hearing or understanding his message of love and reconciliation.

We find few clues in Woolman’s Journal about what he actually said that opened so many Friends’ hearts and minds, and ultimately moved them to disengage from the system of slavery. It is clear, however, that he approached these meetings with humility, having recognized his own shortcomings and having done all he could to remove the beam from his own eye. He acted with sincerity, not mincing words or hiding his true purpose. He also spoke with authority, as someone who had heard the voice of the True Shepherd and knew that the advice he offered was grounded in divine wisdom. Most important, Woolman acted with love, showing by his words and demeanor that he cared deeply about the happiness and well-being of everyone he met. He was no doubt mindful of the words of the Apostle Paul: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." (1 Cor. 13:1)

Speaking for the Earth

Some current writings on the psychology of communication have given us insight into what made Woolman such an effective communicator. Historian Theodore Roszak, in his 1992 book, The Voice of the Earth, an Exploration of Ecopsychology, focused first on how not to mobilize the public around an urgent concern. For a number of years the once-powerful environmental movement suffered a backlash from various quarters for its supposedly anti-human agenda:

To some degree the ecologists have only themselves to blame for their vulnerability. Their habitual reliance on gloom, apocalyptic panic, and the psychology of shame takes a heavy toll in public confidence. . . . The landscape has been balkanized into disaster areas. Scores of groups compete for the public’s attention and funds, each targeted upon a single horror. . . .

Roszak’s call for a more positive and less fragmented environmentalism seems to parallel the way that Woolman expressed concern for slave owners’ spiritual well-being, instead of pointing a finger of guilt and shame at them. He also seems to echo Woolman’s conviction that slavery, war, and injustice were not separate issues but symptoms of a single, underlying spiritual problem. Roszak’s conclusion seems to put into modern terms Woolman’s tenet that "love is the first motion":

Is there an alternative to scare tactics and guilt trips that will lend ecological necessity both intelligence and passion? There is. It is the concern that rises from shared identity—two lives that become one. Where that identity is experienced deeply, we call it love. More coolly and distantly felt, it is called compassion. This is the link we must find between ourselves and the planet that gives us life. At some point, environmentalists must decide if they believe that link truly exists. They must ask where it can be found inside themselves as well as in the public, whose habits and desires we wish to change as only love can change us.

Seeking Truth Together

So, when we engage others about peace, justice, or ecological concerns, the challenge for us as Friends is to balance frankness with a hopeful vision for the future. This is particularly important when we are discussing controversial issues with those who may view the world through different spiritual and/or political lenses, or who may use different language to describe their understanding. We need to keep the channels of communication open by learning to "listen in tongues" and by being candid about the perspectives, belief systems, or personal experiences that may have shaped our own views.

We also need to be aware that what a person already knows about a given issue can stand in the way of assimilating new or different information. For example, deeply embedded in Western culture and modern economics is the assumption that we humans represent the pinnacle of creation, that we are licensed to subdue and control nature to satisfy our needs, that our happiness requires high levels of material consumption. There may be room for appreciating natural beauty and caring about certain other species, such as eagles, polar bears, and various pets, but little sense that the natural world has intrinsic worth.

A person who has grown up in this culture probably would have difficulty imagining life in a society that is governed by ecological principles. They would have difficulty re-imaging themselves as responsible citizens of the larger community of life. They would wonder how anyone could be satisfied with only "enough" possessions, "enough" money, or "appropriate" levels of technology. They might agree that many things are going awry in modern life and the natural world, but they would likely protest that it’s too difficult or too late to change the way things are.

How would John Woolman try to get beyond such a wall of resistance? In the 18th century he preached simpler living as a way to avoid conflict about scarce resources and to help people center their lives in the Spirit. But the stakes have become much higher. Our survival today requires that we enlarge our world view to see that healing the Earth is integral to healing ourselves. Keeping in mind the ideas found in Woolman’s Journal and in his major essays, here is what we imagine his loving response might sound like today:

Do you remember what it was like when you first fell in love? Didn’t the world open up to all possibilities? Maybe you changed some of your habits, such as eating new foods or trying new experiences, or maybe even moving to another city. Did any of that feel like a sacrifice? Well, when we feel the love flowing through all of God’s creation, we are more than happy to make changes in that relationship, as well. It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice to live more simply so that others may simply live.

Woolman-inspired tips for talking with Friends about peace, justice, and Earthcare:

  • Listen closely, with an ear for "where the words come from."
  • Speak with humility and from personal experience.
  • Show respect for differing perspectives.
  • Speak your truth with love.
  • Be prepared to be transformed.