Climate Change, Quakerism, and a Transformed Life

It was a blind date with a rising executive with General Motors that did it. It was the late 1980s and I’d been hearing about global warming. I didn’t quite have the science straight, but I knew that our dependence on automobiles was part of the problem, and that the huge advertising budgets of the car companies had helped that happen. I didn’t know enough to articulate clearly to this person sitting across the dinner table from me the basis for my concern. I did know, however, that his enthusiasm for the automobile industry was dreadfully at odds with my passion for the Earth and all its species.

By then, I’d been teaching children at a natural science museum for several years and, with a degree in biology, had a solid grounding in basic ecology. Coupled with my love of the natural world and deep concern at what our society was doing to threaten it, I had long had a passion to teach others a sense of respect for and awe at the complexities and fragility of our biosphere.

But I didn’t know the economic and policy aspects of the issue, and I was horrified at my inability to speak about this looming crisis with some sort of authority. It was that evening I knew it was time to move from basic science education into the area of policy and advocacy. It was there that the decisions were being made about our country’s current and future directions.

Transformation—Step 1

Not long after, I found a position at an environmental advocacy organization that focused on land use and its connection to transportation and air quality. Eagerly studying and learning, I saw, with dismay, what we had done. In the 50 years since World War II, our country had replaced the village—with its sense of community, and pedestrian accessibility to libraries, schools, shops, and workplace—with a new concept: the suburban housing development, intentionally separated from all community services. This new design guaranteed total dependence upon the car: zoning laws made it illegal to build stores, schools, or offices in a residential area. Lives spent driving instead of walking managed to erode a sense of neighborhood while dramatically increasing the use of fossil fuels.

Average housing size had also increased as a part of this new American dream—from just under 1000 sq. ft. in 1950, to 1400 sq. ft in 1970, and to 2521 sq. ft. in 2007, and demand for appliances and "gadgetry" to equip larger houses and tend expansive lawns demanded still more fuel.

And it was this cumulative burning of fossil fuel—essentially the energy embedded in "fossil" plants and animals that had decomposed under pressure—that was leading to global warming.

I knew from college chemistry that all fossil fuels (oil, coal, gasoline, natural gas) are composed of carbon and hydrogen. When cleanly burned, the end products of such organic materials are simply CO2 and water. Of course, CO2 isn’t bad in itself (as a greenhouse gas, its blanket effect in our atmosphere is what holds in enough of the sun’s warmth to buffer the planet’s temperatures, allowing life to exist.) The problem was that, over the 150 years since we had begun tapping that "ancient sunlight" (think Industrial Revolution), we have pumped so much CO2 into the atmosphere that levels have gone from 280 parts per million (ppm) to the current 387 ppm. Looking at a graph of CO2 levels and temperature over the last 400,000 years (below) one sees immediately that the two are directly related: CO2 levels and temperature have gone up and down repeatedly due to natural fluctuations, and always in tandem; that is, until the last 100 years, over which CO2 levels rose dramatically (see below), So far, thanks to the ability of the planet’s oceans and forests to absorb excess CO2, the global temperature has only increased by 1 degree Centigrade (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). However, pondering that graph, one has to wonder, "how long can Earth’s buffers hold?"

As I dug further, I was stunned to read that for every gallon of gasoline burned, a car emits 20 lbs. of CO2! Again relying on what I remembered of college chemistry, I figured out the equation that explained the amounts and verified it with a chemist from Sun Oil Co. Given that information, I could see that my car, which got about 32 miles to the gallon, was emitting almost ¾ lb. of CO2 for each mile I drove, while a 20-mpg car would release 1 lb. per mile.

It was clear now that the global warming I’d been worried about had its source in our very lifestyles.

Part of my job at this environmental advocacy group was helping implement part of the Clean Air Act—getting employers to help reduce their employees’ car trips. And that led me to more revelations: the sprawling nature of the suburban communities we’d created had led not only to dependence on the car for the smallest errand, but to longer and longer commutes to work. And the lack of density of these communities meant that there was almost no chance of a bus or train within walking distance.

At the same time, the average fuel efficiency of the U.S. auto fleet—mandated at 28 mpg in the late ’80s—had been seriously eroded by the invention of the SUV. Categorized as "light trucks," and therefore exempt from the required average, these heavier, gas-hungry vehicles were advertised as "safer." The U.S. public embraced them with enthusiasm, not knowing that at 15 mpg they were spewing 1.5 lbs. of CO2 into the atmosphere with every mile. Given a 10,000-mile-per-year average, that meant 7 ½ to 10 tons emitted per car! Contrast that with an intercity bus at 0.18 lbs of CO2 per mile, or commuter rail at 0.35 lbs per mile. (See

I was increasingly uncomfortable with a growing contradiction in my life—teaching the merits of a return to walkable communities and a renewed reliance on transit while I still owned a car. I did live on the outskirts of an old, walkable community, so I walked to the train to commute to work, but I still drove a fair amount. I resolved to find a house so convenient to shopping and transit that I could give up my car.

Transformation—Step 2

The small row house I found was a block from the main commercial street of Chestnut Hill, an historic Philadelphia neighborhood with grocery store, library, shops, banks, restaurants, and train and bus service all within a few blocks of my door. Faced with renovating my little house, however, I found myself dragging my feet on selling my car. It was needed, I justified, for all those trips to the lumber yard and big box hardware stores.

Then, six months later, leaving a community association meeting, I found an empty parking place where I had left my car. It had been stolen! My reaction surprised me. I remember looking up at the sky and saying, "That’s right, I did promise to get rid of my car, didn’t I?" Clearly, it seemed to me, some higher power was helping me on this path toward living in a new way.

And what a transformation this turned out to be. I discovered the joys of our marvelous local hardware store (two blocks away) where friendly staff could locate anything you needed somewhere in its recesses and where you could purchase a single screw or washer if needed—no excess packaging here! I paid more for my groceries at the family market, but I learned the workers’ names and bought only what I needed. I also began to take advantage of farmers’ markets a train ride away. It took more thought and planning to get where I needed to go, but I had the joy of reading or napping along the way. It slowed down my life and made it more intentional. I liked it!

My work had also brought me face-to- face with the environmental impact of the foods we eat. I had long thought about being a vegetarian because of the pain and suffering I was sure those feedlot animals endured, but I was never sure how to go about it. Then it began to sink in that our meat-based diet is unsustainable. For example, I learned that it takes 20 gallons of water to produce a pound of vegetables versus 2,000 gallons to produce a pound of beef. Worse, our factory farming methods are now so energy intensive that it takes as much as 20 calories of fossil fuel energy (fertilizers, pesticides, farm machinery, etc.) to produce each calorie of food we eat.

Transformation—Step 3

Into my life came an attractive friend, who just happened to be a gourmet cook and a vegan. What delicious meals I was served! A little hesitant at first, I soon became happily converted to this new way of eating that was healthier for me and for the planet.

It was two years later, when kayaking with a friend, that I shared my long and as yet unrewarded search for a faith community that lived the values they espoused. My friend, an Episcopalian, replied, "Why, Hollister, I think you are a Quaker!"

"What’s a Quaker?" I replied. "What about them makes you think I’d fit?"

"Because, they live their principles," said she.

By then, I’d lived in Philadelphia for 19 years, knew a few people who were Quakers and liked them, but knew nothing of their beliefs. I did know, of course that they believed in peace and that they sat in silence, but the latter hadn’t appealed to me particularly. Still I was intrigued.

Transformation—Step 4

Two months later, I made the 20-minute walk to the closest Friends meeting, and entered a world that was to transform my life still further. With the sun streaming through open windows, birds chirping outside, and a warm and welcoming silence, I was filled with a sense of peace and of having come home. As happens to many convinced Friends, I remember clearly the several messages of that morning. It was mysterious to me why these people were standing up and talking, yet each of them spoke in a way that affected me strongly. I didn’t know what was going on, but knew I wanted to come back again, and again.

I’d only been attending for a few weeks when someone announced a request for a contact to serve as a liaison with the yearly meeting’s Environmental Working Group. My heart leapt with joy. Was this perhaps why I had come here?

Transformation—Step 5

At last I’d found a faith community that was consistent with my core values, my work, and my passion (leading was not a term I’d heard yet), and as time went on I experienced a sense of having found my place in the world.

The 12 years since first walking into Chestnut Hill Meeting have been ones of ever deepening involvement in my faith and in my leading to care for the Earth and to share with others my vision of a transformed human-Earth relationship.

Today, thanks to way opening, I am far from that young woman who didn’t know how to engage her auto industry date in a meaningful discussion on global climate change and the damage his work was doing. Now, I am pretty well versed in policy matters and legislation related to energy policy, climate change, and other aspects of our impact on the biosphere. I serve on the Policy Committee of Friends Committee on National Legislation; speak regularly to faith-based and secular groups about climate change and ecological and carbon footprinting; lead Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream symposia; and keep asking how we are called to change our lives in response to the social, economic, and ecological inequities and crises of our times.

I still don’t own a car and eat a vegan diet (organic and local as much as possible), and I work hard to lower my ecological footprint. At the end of 2003 a way opened for me to give up my paid employment and devote my life to the work of seeking peace and justice on an Earth restored.

In the fall of 2007, I became clerk of both my yearly meeting’s Earthcare Working Group and of Quaker Earthcare Witness of the Americas, the international network of Friends who share a deep concern for this precious, sacred planet and all the species that comprise God’s creation.

Today, there are big questions that face us as Friends:

Is there a way that we—such a small group, but one that has had great influence on matters of social and economic justice—can play a role in awakening our society to the need to drastically and rapidly reduce our carbon footprints and bring to fruition the admonition to "live simply so that others may simply live?"

Is there a way that we can help address the needs of the vulnerable—humans and other species—in the face of the catastrophic results of climate change? It is too late to avoid the impact of our nation’s profligate ways, but might Friends testimonies and history of service enable us to be a beacon of light and service to others?

I believe the answer to both of these questions is yes.

My dream is that all Friends who share these concerns will come to see ourselves as Quaker Earthcare witnesses, and that, together, we will adopt a radical witness, modeling a new way of living—in right relationship with all creation.

Hollister Knowlton

Hollister Knowlton, a member of Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., is clerk of Quaker Earthcare Witness of the Americas and clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Earthcare Working Group.