Books January 2015
A Sustainable Life: Quaker Faith and Practice in the Renewal of Creation
By Douglas Gwyn. QuakerPress of FGC, 2014. 166 pages. $14.95/paperback; $6.50/eBook.
Reviewed by Ruah Swennerfelt
If you’re expecting that A Sustainable Life is just another one of those unsettling books on the environment, bewailing the evils of our time and exhorting us to action, think again. Douglas Gwyn’s new book is really a prescription for moving into wholeness. He entices us into a life grounded in the faith and practice of Friends, a life whose spiritual rootedness leads to a life of integrity. He portrays how a life of integrity, being true to faith and practice, unfolds into a sustainable life in a world gone amok. Gwyn writes, “The search for a sustainable life begins within. Sustained focus, intention, and effort will be required for us to embody and advocate for a human society that lives in balance with the earth.”
Gwyn provides a thorough guide into the development of Friends faith and practice, relying on the words and practice of early Friends as well as examples of the thinking and lives of contemporary Friends. Using a wheel with spokes as an image woven throughout the book, Gwyn examines the aspects of faith and practice in pairs, symbolically positioned on opposing spokes. For example, several of those paired spokes are light/seed, worship/ministry, equality/community, and simplicity/sustainability. The hollow hub in the center of the spokes represents the “place of unknowing,” the mystery of our lives taking shape as we discern right living for ourselves.
Each of the counterpoints on the spokes is essential, and together they represent the creative tension within ourselves as we live out Quaker faith and practice. For example, simplicity represents the paring down of that which prevents us from being fully present to Spirit; sustainability is not only the way we then outwardly live our lives, but also the way our whole community lives in the world.
Many of us have lost our way on the Quaker journey. We have forgotten the roots of our Quaker faith and practice and try, instead, to recreate the basis for our lives as Friends. Gwyn sheds light on what we already have to guide us, and eloquently reveals the origins, journey, and possibility of living fully in the life and spirit of the Divine.
As an advocate of the Transition Movement, which is about building resilient communities to sustain us as we transition away from reliance on fossil fuels, I found much in the book to help me in my community efforts. Remembering to ground myself in my faith will help me in all my relationships within and without the Religious Society of Friends. According to Gwyn, “Any real hope for the world depends upon people in all their variety converging at the point of their own direct experience of God, who teaches them in whatever idiom ‘speaks to their condition.’”
At last we have a book that provides guidance, from a faith and practice perspective, for how we might transition into a life filled with the Divine Presence, relying on that presence to support the necessary work as we turn away from a world filled with violence, excess consumption, pollution, and disregard for all that lives, to a sustainable life that is grounded in the Light, cares about life on the planet, and prompts us to Spirit-filled action.
I commend this book to all Friends and suggest that it be used as a springboard for discussion and discernment.
Ruah Swennerfelt is a member of Burlington (Vt.) Meeting. She served as general secretary for Quaker Earthcare Witness for 17 years and is now retired. She is active in her town’s Transition Initiative and, with her husband, attempts to live a sustainable life.
Quakernomics: An Ethical Capitalism
By Mike King. Anthem Press, 2014. 276 pages. $25/paperback.
Reviewed by David Morse
Most Friends are aware of Quaker families that rose to fame in the Industrial Revolution: the Darbys revolutionized ironmaking; the Barclays and Lloyds pioneered in banking and insurance; the Cadburys, Rountrees, and Frys dominated chocolate-making.
However, readers of Mike King’s new book, Quakernomics, may be surprised at the sheer breadth of influence exerted by Quakers—far out of proportion to their numbers—in virtually every field of endeavor for the first 150 years of the Industrial Revolution. From chemistry to mining, from canal building to railroads, from soap making to biscuit baking, Quakers were the chief drivers of the new industrial capitalism from the early 1700s through the late 1800s.
Two questions lie at the heart of this well-organized book: First, how do we account for Quaker dominance? Second, what relevance does the brand of capitalism they practiced have in our lives today?
Mike King brings to his subject a thorough grounding in economics and wide reading in literature. The text is enlivened by references to novels by Dickens and Steinbeck, and—this by way of disclosure—my own Quaker novel, The Iron Bridge.
King explains how my time-traveling heroine, Maggie Foster, attempts to sabotage the first iron bridge, built in 1773 by Abraham Darby III. She hopes to derail the environmental disaster that will come with large-scale industrialization. Maggie experiences firsthand the pollution and hardships around the ironworks of Coalbrookdale and the occasional hypocrisy, as when the Darbys cast cannon. The bridge itself—the world’s first iron structure—was built jointly by Abraham Darby III and John Wilkinson, an arms maker.
King’s book is more sympathetic to the Quaker industrialists—who were necessarily realists, not armchair environmentalists, and who turned their wealth to philanthropic ends. Their socially conscious brand of capitalism, which he calls “Quakernomics,” stood in benign contrast to the “dark satanic mills” operating elsewhere.
King challenges the fictional Maggie Foster’s mission: “The accusation leveled against Quakernomics by Maggie Foster in The Iron Bridge has to be answered.” Quakernomics: An Ethical Capitalism is his thoughtfully considered answer, and more.
Why did Quakers rise to such pre-eminence? King notes they were denied more traditional paths of achievement. Like Jews and women, Quaker men were not full citizens; they could not attend Oxford and other institutions of higher education; they could not own property or hold public office.
Friends formed an extremely coherent social group. Newly emerged from persecution, they segregated themselves from mainstream society by their religious zeal, their distinctive plain dress and speech, their opposition to war and refusal to take oaths. They traveled together, made strategic marriages within Quakerdom, and loaned each other money. Thus, two and three centuries ahead of the Internet and smart phones, Quakers were deeply networked. King is “rather glad that they didn’t use their ‘mob-like’ connections for organized crime!”
King, himself Oxford educated and a practicing Quaker, argues that “no other single group operated on such a huge scale in furthering industrial capitalism; no other group collectively pursued what I will call ‘total capitalism’—that is a penetration of almost every aspect of industrialization and its capital base.”
Competitive and entrepreneurial as they were, Quakers saw “that of God in everyone.” This was manifest in their work for prison reform and care of the insane, and their reputation for honesty. As industrialists, they spaced out production so as to avoid layoffs; they built model villages to provide decent housing for thousands of workers; they founded schools and libraries.
Karl Marx ignored Quakernomics because it did not fit his paradigm of a ruthlessly exploitive system, according to King. Marx paid attention only to a few notable exceptions, as when the world-famous Quaker bank Overend & Gurney collapsed in 1866 under the management of foolish heirs.
King notes other lapses: the Darbys’ cannon making, some fraudulent investment in the South Sea Bubble, some poaching from other businesses, and years of resistance by the Quaker chocolatiers to abandoning their procurement of cocoa beans from slave labor.
King confronts these blemishes honestly, for the most part. My only real complaint with the book is that he underplays the wide swath of Quaker enterprises founded on cotton, sugar, indigo, and tea that also depended on slavery. This has relevance today, when much chocolate is still produced by slaves, when garments are produced in sweatshops, and Apple computer products are assembled in China under conditions so brutal that nets are installed to prevent workers from jumping to their deaths. Nor does the book examine the unintended consequences of Quaker success in mining and coal burning that contributed to today’s global climate change.
My novel perhaps makes too much of Quaker complicity and the legacy of industrial pollution. King’s is a different truth. The charm of his book for me at a personal level is that it is a corrective to the darkness of my own. Each has a place.
What makes King’s book especially welcome on Quaker (and other) library shelves is that it offers a context for understanding the Quaker struggle to balance profits and compassion in light of today’s hyper-capitalism, in which that balance is utterly absent. Social responsibility has given way to the heartlessness of the Walmart business model, justified by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics insistence that the only god is profits.
The Quaker entrepreneurs knew better.
David Morse, a member of Storrs (Conn.) Meeting, is author of a novel, The Iron Bridge, and a Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Testimony: John Woolman on Today’s Global Economy.
Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key
By Larry L. Rasmussen. Oxford University Press, 2012. 462 pages. $45/hardcover; $34.95/paperback; $23.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Brian Drayton
At several points in this book, I was struck by the fact that I was reading things I knew already yet coming to them very freshly because of the thoughtful, probing way the author got there. Rasmussen draws on ideas and information from many fields and many faiths to build a way of thinking about ethical living, for people of faith, in a time of ecological and social crisis. While the author is clearly and comfortably within the Christian tradition, he is not blindly so, and the arguments he adduces are both relevant to and informed by other traditions—Jewish, Buddhist, Native American, Islamic, and others. The writing is accessible but challenging, and the book is beautifully designed to create an edifice of thought and language within which to make sense of our times, and to act in response.
Rasmussen explores human nature and the nature of the world we inhabit—the “givens” with which we have to work. In an interconnected, finite, mutable world, humans are inventive, tool-building and -using, social storytellers. Our drive to make sense of things, and to shape the world to make sense for us, means that we all too easily think of humans as the center of the world’s story, because we are the center of our story. Thus, we create our culture out of earth materials, yet tend to forget that this makes us dependent upon an ecosphere that has its own laws of abundance or paucity, renewal and depletion.
We have been warned for centuries that our growing tendency to see everything in commodity-market terms results in impoverishment as well as riches. Our soils and ecosystems are dangerously impoverished, and so are our imaginations. Many individuals are impoverished materially as well, as their fates are ruled to an increasing degree by systems that work “for the greater good.” Those systems, however, cannot easily reckon with the good of the individuals whose data are aggregated so we can make statistical sense of trends and forecasts.
So the faith we seek and the ethics we need must take account of the many kinds of alienation and unreality that underpin our economic and social systems, and re-engage with the basics of human nature and the nature of the world. Our faith can be one of cultivation, not exploitation, of community and networks, not human autonomy. Our religious traditions have tremendous resources upon which we can draw to make wonder, delight, and inquiry—questions before answers—once again a daily feature of each person’s life.
Against rampant consumerism, which defines us by our desires, in order to generate wealth regardless of cost, our traditions oppose the healthy roots of asceticism. Reimagined in the light of the community and the earth, asceticism need not be focused on punitive or life-denying suffering, but rather on ways to be freed from the rule of desire—exploitation which defines identity as consumption. Using anew the resources of our religious communities to re-vision earth, organisms, and human individuals as irreducibly sacred is also a way to counter our society’s tendency to make every good thing a commodity, whose value is expressed in monetary terms—and which can then be treated as objects of desire rather than of celebration.
Rasmussen sees the mystic traditions, which are paths of transcendence, to be key resources to supplant alienation with connection. These traditions must, however, be renewed with the recognition that “transcendence” does not mean “world-rejecting,” but rather that we encounter the divine, the sacred, within the world we are inhabiting, cultivating, cherishing, as something intricately united with us, and yet beyond us. To accept anew our position as participants in this complex world of ecological connections and exchanges, we must embrace diversity—not only biological diversity, but also human diversity—and commit to the prophetic virtues of justice, peace, and mercy.
Liberation, despite (or, rather, through) the constraints of love, of community, of the laws and patterns of the natural world, will be the result of our accepting the wisdom of God, which delights in creation as much as in human loves and works. To realize this multidimensional freedom is the great work before us, and is a positive response great enough to counter the very great enemies of hope. This book is expensive, but will repay the cost many times over in hours of reflection and discussion among Friends who seek to respond adequately to the spiritual challenges we (and “we” are the world) face.
Brian Drayton is a member of Weare (N.H.) Meeting.
The Song of the Earth: A Synthesis of the Scientific and Spiritual Worldviews
Edited by Maddy Harland and William Keepin. Permanent Publications, 2012. 254 pages. $29.95/paperback; $0.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Phila Hoopes
If there were an answer to the world’s problems—a different vision to replace the mess we have now—what would it be? And how could we get there from here?
These are the questions addressed by Gaia Education, an organization promoting “a holistic approach to education for sustainable development.” According to Gaia Education’s website, it “develops curricula for sustainable community design drawing from good practice within ecovillages worldwide,” and “works in partnership with urban and rural communities, universities, ecovillages, government and non-government agencies, and the United Nations.”
In a 20-module, 4-volume curriculum called the 4Keys, Gaia Education explores questions of community building, world economics, and ecological habitat. The final volume is The Song of the Earth and it begins with essays examining our oneness with Earth and all creation, moving to the transformation of consciousness that the realization of oneness awakens. Among the contributors to these first two modules are scientists and wisdom keepers such as interspiritual author William Keepin, evolution biologist Elisabet Sahtouris, geologist Thomas Berry, author David Korten, and eco-philosopher Joanna Macy.
Celebrating the mystical understanding that lies at the core of all spiritual traditions—that the cosmos is “a vast network of energetic living systems, all interconnected in a complex web of relationships that manifest out of an underlying unified field”—the contributors explore our present point of disconnection, and the awakening and reintegration that is slowly spreading from science to religion.
From there they explore paths toward healing: reconnection with nature, peace and planetary healing, and socially engaged spirituality. The essays span the width and breadth of human wisdom, from indigenous prophecies and practices to Eastern and Western wisdom lore, from emerging science viewing the world as holowave to pioneering ecovillages practicing permaculture. Among the contributors in these modules are permaculturist and author Maddy Harland, Cherokee elder Dhyani Ywahoo, peace author Duane Elgin, Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, the Wisdom Keepers, and the Elders Oraibi.
Despite delving into religious and scientific esoterica, sometimes dipping into previously hidden aspects of the world’s wisdom traditions, sometimes offering meditations and visualizations for personal or group experience, the essays are approachable. Their challenge lies in their depth: this is information that demands contemplation and slow integration.
It also invites action. Throughout is the panoramic vision of a new Gaian civilization: one with economics, social structure, governance, and trade all focused on sustainably meeting the needs of the planet and the people rather than on garnering profit for corporate shareholders. This large-scale picture is buttressed with essays about ecovillages already achieving socially responsible and accountable business, localized economic structures, and decentralized energy and food sourcing. At the most intimate level, there are meditations and practices for self-healing and personal growth.
The Song of the Earth is not a book for casual reading: it could be used as a rich guidebook for study by itself; its bibliography could be the basis of several supplemental courses; and taken in combination with the other three books in the series, it forms a certification program for personal or community development. In its synthesis of science and spirituality in the context of cosmic consciousness, this book is both a reference resource and challenging guidebook worth reading again and again.
Phila Hoopes is a freelance copywriter, poet, and blogger (Soulpathsthejourney.org), a student of creation spirituality and permaculture, with a passion for tracking deep connections in the mystical experience of the Divine across faith traditions. She is a member of Homewood Meeting in Baltimore, Md.
The World We Made: Alex McKay’s Story from 2050
By Jonathon Porritt. Phaidon Press, 2013. 318 pages. $39.95/paperback.
Reviewed by Richard Taylor
This is a beautiful, encouraging, readable, and imaginative book. It’s about saving the world from environmental disaster. To appreciate just its beauty, riffle through its 318 pages, and look at some of its 135 striking color illustrations. Each shows some aspect of a possible future world that is no longer threatened by environmental catastrophe, like hybrid-electric passenger planes; a shantytown completely powered by solar panels; a wave-powered, electricity generating facility on Scotland’s coast; urban gardens (including towering “vertical greenhouses”); Detroit, Mich., as a “green city,” with most open spaces devoted to urban gardens; and CO2 stored underground through “direct air capture” plants. These are not photographs or paintings, but rather stunning futuristic digital images that rival photography in their highly realistic, colorful depictions. They say to the reader, “Here’s the environmentally sustainable world that’s possible.” The accompanying text says, “Here’s how we can work to bring it into being.”
The book’s 50 short chapters (each averaging about six pages) are packed with accurate information on key environmental issues, with titles like “Water for All”; “Feeding the World”; “Fixing the Climate”; “Work, Wealth, and Wellbeing”; “Solar Revolutions”; “The End of the Age of Oil”; “A World without Coal”; and the like. Reading them is like taking a short course on environmental challenges and possible solutions.
As I read The World We Made, I could feel my spirit moving away from the despair I have often felt at the prospect of environmental cataclysm. Despair creeps in when I hear the dire predictions that we can expect steadily rising global temperatures, widespread hunger and starvation, and the uncontrollable spread of diseases, all resulting in the displacement, suffering, and death of hundreds of millions of people.
The World We Made does not deny the possibility that these frightening forecasts may come true. Jonathon Porritt, the book’s author, is an eminent British writer, broadcaster, commentator, and activist on sustainable development. He is very realistic. He knows that the struggle for a more sane and sustainable world will meet resistance of the human, natural, and technological types. Not every promising innovation will succeed. Internet wars may continue. Bioterrorism may cause major disasters. Riots over scarce water are likely. This is not pie in the sky. “Where there are human beings, there is always error,” Porritt writes clear-sightedly.
Yet Porritt skillfully paints a credible and appealing picture of a much less dire world, a world that not only has been pulled back from the brink of collapse, but in which real sustainability has been achieved. He sketches a world that is possible—even beautiful—and spells out how we can get there. “We can still move to address today’s converging crises,” he writes hopefully, “faster than the speed at which those crises threaten to overwhelm us.”
Porritt offers his encouraging vision by doing something that’s never been done before. He imagines himself as a college teacher named Alex McKay looking back from the year 2050 and describing the human genius, scientific innovations, technological breakthroughs, legal reforms, political revolutions, and movements for change that have brought about not a perfect world but a genuinely new world that is much less threatening and much more appealing than what we have now.
Porritt knows what he’s talking about. He has been a prominent figure in the environmental movement for over 40 years. For six years, he was director of Friends of the Earth, a leading international environmental group. His base is now the Forum for the Future, a sustainable development nonprofit organization which he co-founded.
Porritt understands that posing an appealing vision is not enough, by itself, to bring about the vast changes implied by his futuristic vision. A burr needs to be put under the saddle of powerful individuals, institutions, corporations, and governments that resist the needed changes. Some of the “burrs,” he believes, will come from nature itself in the form of major climate-induced disasters like extreme water stress. Some of the burrs will come from the economy, as in millions of people increasingly outraged at being unable to find any work.
Disasters, however, in and of themselves, will not create the necessary changes. Change will come when people with a vision of a better future begin to demand it by incessant, intelligently organized nonviolent campaigns. Porritt describes these by devoting a few positive paragraphs to existing nonviolent movements, such as the online activist community Avaaz. Friends are starting to do our part through monthly meeting committees and such groups as Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT).
However, I wish that Porritt had spent more time on how to organize nonviolent campaigns, but maybe that is expecting too much. The World We Made, as written, is a marvelous, inspirational contribution to our understanding of the current environmental crisis and the sustainable, more human world for which we need to work.
Richard Taylor is a member of Germantown (Pa.) Meeting and is active in the meeting’s task force on ending mass incarceration. Dick is also developing a website designed to encourage Christian preachers to avoid anti-Judaism in their sermons and in the church’s readings from the New Testament.
The Wisdom to Survive: Climate Change, Capitalism & Community
Directed by John Ankele and Anne Macksoud. Old Dog Documentaries, 2014. 56 minutes. Price varies (see below) at Thewisdomtosurvive.bullfrogcommunities.com.
Reviewed by Karie Firoozmand
What is keeping us from action, now that the debate about humans’ causal role in global warming is over? We know what we need to do: use solar, wind, water, geothermal, and tidal energy. We can see venture capitalists—and some governments—building the infrastructure, but why is it not blossoming on a global scale much faster?
In this film the answer given by Unitarian Universalist minister Daniel Jantos is “This is where unmoderated capitalism has taken us.” (Note that he says “unmoderated capitalism,” not simply “capitalism.”) Unregulated capitalism’s appetites can by definition never be satisfied. In its current form, there is a requirement for constant growth, which causes destruction, wastes resources, and degrades the environment.
Why is that? According to environmentalist Bill McKibben, total reliance on fossil fuels is at the center of our daily lives. The resulting global warming is the first global-scale problem humanity has had. He calls changing this situation the “most difficult task humanity has ever faced.”
The Wisdom to Survive is a short, visually beautiful, and philosophically warm and uplifting movie. Yes, on the topic of global warming, this movie touches the place where, as the poet Emily Dickinson said, “I dwell in possibility.” And in possibility, this movie gives excellent company. Included are McKibben, Post Carbon Institute senior fellow Richard Heinberg, and spiritual leader and activist Joanna Macy. They are thinkers I have come to rely on in my environmental justice work, but I was overjoyed to be introduced to Buddhist and educator Stephanie Kaza, researcher Amy Seidl, biologist Roger Payne, and green movement veteran Gus Speth, all leaders who have spent their careers in various aspects of developing the wisdom to survive.
Speth’s inclusion is particularly interesting since he was, decades ago, the leader of a Big Green organization that took funding (and marching orders) from big corporations while helping them greenwash their images. Recently, Speth has reoriented his work to the point of being arrested protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. In The Wisdom to Survive, he doesn’t equivocate: “corporations are the principal political actors” in the United States, and ours is a “failing democracy” with political leaders that are “pathetic.”
One thing wisdom reveals is that it is crazy that activists are expected to prove that our work won’t “hurt” the economy. We are “driven by the titanic force of a civilization in the grip of insanity” resulting from a century of cheap oil. The flaws and resulting suffering are obvious. Stephanie Kaza, University of Vermont Environmental Program professor, predicts that “energy showdowns” may come in the forms of wars or fascist states, and that this system is destroying itself. Twenty years ago we didn’t realize that what was in question was not only human, animal, and environmental rights, but the planetary balance that supports all life on Earth. It is time for a reorientation.
So what do we do?
Joanna Macy, speaking from decades of teaching the Work That Reconnects, says it is better to help the carbon-based system disintegrate, since it is already defeating itself, and build the new. The mainstream doesn’t want to acknowledge this pain, and “reduces it to individual pathology.” But it is really the shared experience of a “deep grievance.” Speaking the truth about it reveals our interconnectedness. It is hard to be present with suffering, but opportunities for action will arise.
Kaza affirms that a good first step is not turning away, but seeing the suffering and allowing a response to arise. That is an important step, and Quakers are suited to it. We know that, when we stand still in the Light, “which shows and discovers,” strength, power, and mercy come in after we see something uncomfortable.
Climate change will force people to live within limits. It will be messy; sacrifices will be made. How it will be depends on what we do now. Now that we have released so much carbon, we have to deal with the resulting disruption.
At the same time, Amy Seidl tells us, climate change is the catalyst bringing us to a new understanding of what our civilization can be, and of the abundance in the world and the interdependence that holds systems together. We need to create intentional ecosystems now (as the permaculture movement is doing). We need to roll back the private takeover of public spaces (as the Occupy movement is doing). We need to resist making water a commodity (as the Navajo have succeeded in doing in Arizona). We need to join the struggle to resist corporate colonization of peasant farming societies by means of seeds (as La Via Campesina movement is doing).
We need to be awake to the fact that our consumption choices create a situation where the global North’s “system of accumulation” forces the global South to adapt first to climate change. Even the U.S. military recognizes climate refugees as a threat.
And where we don’t see choices, we need to speak truth to power and demand changes from government and the corporations that influence it. We can ban extreme resource extraction. We can legislate the transition to clean renewable energy. We can choose technology that works with renewable energy without blindly putting our faith in the kind of science that adapts to climate change instead of rolling it back.
We need to support young people who are emerging as leaders. In the Wendell Berry poem for which this film is titled, he names “the lives our lives prepare.” These are our children, and we need to hold a big space for them as they develop “system thinking” in what a young leader calls “not a fight but the joyful existence to live in reality.”
The Wisdom to Survive DVDs can be purchased for private use or for a group showing. To see the options, go to thewisdomtosurvive.bullfrogcommunities.com and click on “Book a Screening.” The $29.95 Home Use House Party option is for screening only with friends and family. The other options are for screening the film in a public place. The community screenings are based on audience size and give you license to charge admission and keep the proceeds. For the free screening options, you can’t charge admission, but you can accept donations. The No-Frills Screening is the least expensive of the free screening options at $59, but the Basic and Activist Packages come with five and ten consumer DVDs respectively that one can sell.
The environmental justice movement is big and growing. You can find a place to get involved in your meeting, school, state or national legislature, or environmental grassroots action through many nonprofit organizations from local to global. We need a big movement, which means we need massive involvement. You can even begin with a screening of this film.
Correction 1/20/15: A previous version of this review incorrectly described the cost options for DVDs and group screenings. Individual copies are for sale at $29.95. The community screenings are based on audience size and give you license to charge admission and keep the proceeds. For the free screening options, you can’t charge admission, but you can accept donations.