Nothing Lowly in the Universe: An Integral Approach to the Ecological Crisis

By Jennie M. Ratcliffe. Crundale Press, 2019. 348 pages. $27/paperback.

Jennie Ratcliffe takes on an ambitious project in her quest for an integral approach to the ecological crisis—and succeeds admirably. She starts with the predicament in a thorough, concise, up-to-date, science-based, and sobering overview of the climate crisis; followed by an analysis of why several proposed fixes fall short; and a discussion of the underlying scientific and religious belief systems that drive this predicament.

Many books out there now cover similar terrain, but Ratcliffe is just getting started. In the second section, on principles, she goes on to talk about the habits of mind and heart that constrain our ability to see our place in the whole earth community, and to understand life as one integrated whole. Many among us have thought about these issues as well—though the “climate breakdown, science, and technology” people aren’t always in great communication with the “spirit, matter, and consciousness as indivisible” people.

But there’s more. Who would ever imagine naming Quaker testimonies straight out in a scholarly book on the ecological crisis? Ratcliffe doesn’t hesitate or equivocate; she offers a history of Quakers and ecological concerns, with a particular focus on integrity, and sections on the principles and powers of nonviolence, the richness of simplicity, and right relationship in equality and community. Good Quaker that she is, she goes on to look at other religious responses to the ecological crisis as well.

I love the titles in the final section on practice: the practice of deep ecology, the practice of deep economy, and the practice of deep peace. She concludes that they are all of one piece.

Whether we are calling for an end to ecological destruction, or for more equitable, peaceable, and sustainable economies that support the poorest among us while preserving the sanctity of all life-forms, we begin to realize that all these concerns are indivisible . . . and that ultimately, we are being called to love each other and the earth as one indivisible commonwealth of life.

The biggest strength of this book, from my perspective, is how it fits so many different issues together in the context of a single whole, and all within the frame of an underlying religious or spiritual consciousness. Many of us care passionately about one or another of the parts, whether it’s our ecological footprint, the problems of population or economic growth, the environmental costs of war, the limits of science and technology, the importance of the feminine aspect in addressing this crisis, the psycho-spiritual realm, Christian earth stewardship, the greening of world religions, agro-ecology, steady state economics, appropriate technology, or the power of nonviolence. Ratcliffe takes each of these parts, holds them up to the light in a way that is evenhanded, often scholarly, and always compassionate, and finds a place for them all in this great web of connections she has created.

There is a way in which I have found it challenging to review this book, in a large part because I wish I had written it myself. It’s easy to second-guess both my praise and my inclination to focus on each little point where I might have made an improvement.

Nothing Lowly does have some flaws. As Ratcliffe labors to weave together a multitude of strands that people are not used to thinking of as connected, she takes painstaking care to illustrate those connections as thoroughly as possible. Consequently, there is a lot of repetition, with the reader referred to what has already been discussed and what is to come. Her sentences are long and not always easy to get through, and the voluminous footnoting can be distracting.

That said, I can think of no book that better illuminates the larger picture in which the ecological crisis is embedded. It speaks directly and powerfully both to those who focus on the life of the Spirit and those who yearn to change the world. I would recommend Nothing Lowly in the Universe for Quaker meeting libraries, for Friends upper schools and colleges, for adult discussion groups, and for all seekers of truth in this time of ecological crisis.

Pamela Haines is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. Her most recent book is Money and Soul, an expansion of a Pendle Hill pamphlet by the same name.

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