Living in Right Relationship: How Does Spirit Call Us?

Wings of Joy

Since I was a child, I have found immense and unending joy in this miraculous creation that is planet Earth and all its abundance and diversity.

I don’t think my father had ever seen or read Rachel Carson’s book A Sense of Wonder, but he raised me as if he had. I have memories from age four or five of his reading to me at bedtime, and what I remember are not traditional children’s books, but National Geographic Magazine (I realized later that he didn’t actually read it to me, but he captivated me with stories about the pictures).

Another image I treasure is one of us—my dad and me—lying shoulder to shoulder on the ground watching a busy ant hill, while he told me all about how these tiny creatures worked together in a community where each had a job and even took care of each other.

One day, when he was building a stone wall next to the driveway, he stopped digging to introduce me to my first earthworm and to explain to my friends and me how they eat their way through our soil and make it rich and good for our garden. His stories and his tenderness created in me fertile ground for a joyful embrace of the natural world, which would prove to be important to me later in life.

Fire of Love

I have been married but have never had a child. For some years that was a source of sadness for me and I carried a deep sense of loss. But as my concern about caring for our Earth grew, as my leading to call others into living in right relationship with all beings and all creation spilled forth, one morning, in meeting for worship, a different way of looking at my childlessness came to me.

I was thinking about the fierce love that parents have for their children: the love my parents had had for me, the love that the parents who sat around me at meeting had for their children. I contemplated how that fierce, protective love called them to give and give and give to those children, to sacrifice for them joyfully. And to sometimes take more than the Earth’s fair share to give it to their children—out of love.

What came to me was that perhaps God had not intended me to have children. Instead, I had been given the space in my heart to love the Earth as if it were my child.

To love it unconditionally.

To feel its pain—as a mother feels her child’s pain—as it is abused and exploited.

To be overwhelmed with grief as I began to understand that its living skin—the biosphere—is dying, that the living Earth, my child, is dying because of us. Because of our desires for ourselves and our children. Because of the greed of some.

Indeed, for many of my young adult years, I suffered from a deep clinical depression, and have wondered to what extent it might have stemmed from that grief for Earth.

Rooted in Spirit

I found Spirit—my sense of whatever God is—not in church, but in the forests and waters of the Adirondack Mountains of New York where we spent our short and precious family vacations and where I now have the privilege of companioning my elderly mother during the summer months.

It was there that I found a sense of connection, rootedness, heart-swelling gratitude at the beauty of unspoiled wilderness. There was something larger than me there—some Spirit in the sunrise over the water, in the fragrance of sweet fern, in the wind in the hemlocks and spruce trees, in the waterfall flowing into the lake, in the amazing clarity of the water through which one could see 20 feet down, in the strange beauty of the carnivorous pitcher plant, and in the fragile beauty of a pink lady slipper—gorgeous whether I was there to witness its blooms or not.

Filled with a sense of wonder, wherever I went, if alone, I spoke aloud my gratitude for all I encountered. My guess is that many of you have also experienced a sense of Spirit in the natural world.

Each year, it was hard to leave the lake and return to my home town on the coast of Connecticut. And once there, I was always jarred by the contrast between the unspoiled wilderness—what God had created, it seemed to me—and what humans had constructed. It was painful to observe the trash we generated and left behind, the polluted waterways, the broken-down buildings and the people in communities we neglected.

The Protestant church my family attended did not speak to that which I had found in the forests. Indeed, while I loved singing in the choir, it troubled me that the words that people spoke in church seemed to have no connection to how they lived the rest of their lives. After high school, I drifted away from church. There was always a yearning for some spiritual community, but I never looked in the right places.

A Calling to Live in Right Relationship

It was not until I was in my late 40s that I discovered Quakerism and at last found my spiritual home away from the woods. While I’d lived in Philadelphia for almost 20 years and knew Quakers existed, I didn’t know it was something others could join. By then, I had been trying for some time to live out the saying “Live simply, that others may simply live.”

In the early 1990s, because of my work for an environmental organization working on land use, air quality, and transportation issues, I had become aware of the impact of two things that led to the first major changes I made in my life for the sake of God’s creation and so that “others might simply live.”

First, my research into the impacts of our traditional meat-based (this is meat from the supermarket) vs. vegetarian diets awakened me to the huge difference—in terms of water, land, and fossil fuel use—between the two. In some cases, for example water use for vegetables vs. beef, the difference is as large as a factor of 1,000. For ecological footprint it’s a factor of 500. It had niggled at me for at least 20 years that I should be a vegetarian, but I wasn’t sure how to do it and it wasn’t until I saw those numbers that I felt compelled to change. And then way opened and a man came into my life who was a vegan—and a very good cook. Suddenly, it was easy to become a vegan!

The second change came about as I began to understand the enormous damage that has resulted from our country’s love affair with the car. We have sprawled our development over the land, including—at least in Pennsylvania—some of the richest farmland; we have given up the old model of village communities where people know their neighbors and can walk to everything they need. In exchange, our zoning laws require housing developments that are cut off from schools, shops, libraries, parks, and places of work, making it necessary for us to drive in order to get anywhere. And, of course, all the gasoline needed for our cars and heating and cooling for our much larger houses pumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

Learning all this made me uncomfortable about driving a car, but I wasn’t moved to action until I learned that for every gallon of gas we burn, 20 pounds of CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere! I know that sounds impossible—I thought so too, until I got someone at Sun Oil Company to walk me through the chemical equation. The extra weight comes from the addition of oxygen from the air when the fuel burns. That meant that my little red Hyundai, which got 34 miles to the gallon, was spewing out three quarters of a pound of CO2 for every mile I drove!

I felt convicted—in the early Quaker sense of the word—as if shown something wrong—hypocrisy—inside me.

So, 15 years ago, I began to look for a place to live where one could manage without a car. I found a tiny little row house right across from the train station and a block from several bus lines and the charming cobblestone main street through town. To my delight, I loved the way giving up my car transformed my life. It slowed things down and made me more intentional.

I also came to discover that there was an unexpected gift in not having children: it has made such changes ever so much easier for me than for many others.

But I had started to tell you how I came to find Quakerism.

About two years after I’d given up my car and become a vegan, I was kayaking with a friend and we were sharing our spiritual journeys. When I told her that I’d never found a religion that spoke to me, she responded, “Why Hollister, I think you are a Quaker!” In surprise, I asked why she would say that, and she—who is a devout Episcopalian—answered, “Quakers live their principles.”

I’ve since learned that there are many people of faith who live their principles, but that had not been my experience in the churches I’d attended. Intrigued by this notion of such a faith group, two months later I got up the courage to walk the three-fourths mile to my local monthly meeting. Once there, though perplexed at what was going on, I sensed in the silence and peace that I had come home.

It was the testimonies of Simplicity, Equality, and Integrity that spoke most strongly to me, for they seemed to provide a framework for the kind of life I was trying to live.

In finding the Religious Society of Friends, I believed I had found a faith community that would share or at least understand my concerns. It was with delight that I found that my yearly meeting had an Environmental Working Group and that my monthly meeting was happy to appoint me its representative. From there I was encouraged to consider becoming my yearly meeting’s representative to the national organization then called Friends Committee on Unity with Nature—now Quaker Earthcare Witness. There I found true kindred spirits in terms of a deep concern for the sacredness of Earth.

In 2001, the collapse of the twin towers helped me see with blinding clarity that we cannot hope to have peace unless we do justice. And, further, that we cannot have peace or justice without right sharing of the Earth. As Gandhi said, “To foster peace you must live equitably.”

Yet we in the United States continue to use so much more than our share of Earth’s abundance while others suffer in poverty. We wage war in countries whose oil resources we desire, and we continue to burn so much of that oil that climate change threatens the lives of millions.

From this new Quaker foundation, I began to speak and give workshops at monthly meetings, especially about the issues of climate change, the impact and the inequity of our use of resources, and the need to live in right relationship with all creation. I began to yearn to leave my job to devote more time to working among Friends.

Over the years I have become clear that this work is a ministry, and I am filled with gratitude at the Quaker process that nurtures such work and builds a community of support that it might flower. I am grateful for my worship group, the Evergreens. We are a group of about 15 near neighbors who meet in one another’s houses each weekday morning for worship and study and who find our community growing in its depth and caring commitment to one another.

At the end of 2003, when I was turning 55, my prayers were answered. My job was eliminated and my employer offered me the opportunity to take early retirement. I sold my house and, with the proceeds and other savings, am able to live simply. I have been released to do the work it feels that God has been calling me to do.

Last November I traveled via Greyhound bus from Philadelphia to Denver. Why by bus, you might ask? Once I learned that long-haul buses emit the least CO2 emissions per passenger mile, that felt like the only right choice for me.

For those of you who like to know the numbers, a long-distance bus emits 0.18 lbs. of CO2 per passenger per mile. That’s about half of what’s emitted by long-distance train (0.42 lbs. per passenger per mile) or a Prius and about one sixth that emitted by long-distance planes (0.88 lbs. per passenger per mile).

The more I traveled by bus and put up with its inconveniences, the more I thought about John Woolman and his choice to travel in ship’s steerage so as not to have comforts while others did not. I liked to think that if Woolman were alive today, he might be riding Greyhound with me to be in solidarity with the poor.

So I was traveling to Denver, and since I had lots of time (45 hours or so) I was rereading Jim Merkel’s book, Radical Simplicity, in preparation for the weekend retreat I had been invited to present, on ecological and carbon footprinting.

Jim is not a Quaker, but he is a model for us all. A brilliant and successful engineer working in the weapons industry, he had an awakening when he saw the Exxon Valdez spill and felt convicted—felt that it wasn’t the captain’s fault, but his for being complicit in the system. He gave up his successful career and has since lived in a 300-square-foot home on $5,000 a year (the world average, he says) and dedicated his life to living and teaching about radical simplicity.

I had met Jim at a Quaker Earthcare Witness annual meeting and had already read most of his book, but during that bus ride I came across something I must have missed the first time, and it stunned me to the core. It was a statistic that I should have been aware of based on all the work I’d been doing with ecological footprinting, but I was still surprised.

Jim quoted from the 2002 Living Planet Report, which had been produced jointly by the World Wildlife Fund, The World Conservation Monitoring Center of the United Nation’s Environment Program, and a nonprofit organization called Redefining Progress. It was based on 1999 data, when world population had just hit 6 billion.

Here’s what I read and what I want you to know: “Currently the world’s wealthiest one billion people alone consume the equivalent of the earth’s entire sustainable yield. All six billion are consuming at a level that is 20 percent over sustainable yield.”

Since 1999, the world has added another 700 million people. And now the entire world population of 6.7 billion people is using and producing waste at a level that is 30 percent more than the Earth can sustainably yield or process.

Take that in. Consider its implications.

That the world’s wealthiest 1 billion consume all the Earth can give us.

That we, part of the world’s wealthiest one billion, use so much that we leave nothing for the other five (now 5.7) billion humans, who live so simply or in such dire poverty that they use just 20 percent of Earth’s sustainable yield.

With our cars and our plane flights and our meat-based diets and our processed foods, and now—on average—2,500-square-foot homes, and our throw-away society, we, the wealthy, leave nothing for the rest of our fellow humans who are dying of malnutrition, or trying to survive in refugee camps as they flee their war-torn, desertified, flooded homelands. We leave nothing for the rest of God’s creation, our kin—those magnificent large mammals: the gorilla, elephant, Siberian tiger—all expected to be extinct in the wild by mid-century, mostly due to habitat loss. And the climate change that results from our overuse of fossil fuels is disrupting the seasons so that migratory birds arrive home only to find their normal foods already gone or not yet ready to refuel them.

How could this be—this terrible inequity?

For me, discovering the ecological footprint concept has been transformative. Many of you know about ecological footprinting, and a number of you have come to the Earthcare Center at the Gathering in past years to calculate your own footprint. It is a rough calculation, not a precise measure, but I have found it a very effective tool. An ecological footprint is the total amount of biologically productive land and sea required to provide the resources we use and to absorb the waste we produce. The fair share footprint assumes 28.2 billion acres of biologically productive area on Earth’s surface.

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression that if everyone lived the way we do, we would need five planet Earths. Here’s where that comes from: with 6.7 billion people in the world, there are about 4.2 acres available for each person. Yet, the average U.S. citizen uses 24 acres of biocapacity to sustain his/her lifestyle, which is more than five times what is available. So, if everyone were allocated as much as we take, we’d need at least five planets.

It is this overconsumption of biocapacity, the destruction of habitat, and the dumping of toxins into the system that has led to loss of biodiversity and ecosystem collapse. Species are becoming extinct at 10 to 100 times the normal rate. Biologists agree we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction. But unlike the crisis that caused the last mass extinction, ending the Cretaceous Period—the dinosaur age—65 million years ago, this crisis is one for which we humans are largely responsible.

So, what do we do with the heart-wrenching knowledge that we are complicit in this terrible inequity and this damage that threatens life as we know it?

As Bill McDonough said, “Ignorance ends today. Negligence starts tomorrow.”

Ten Things You Can Do that Give Me Hope

For a long time now, we have not been living in right relationship with the rest of creation, and the damage from that is all around us. That we are responsible, to me, makes it a moral, ethical, and religious issue. An issue that calls not only for a response from secular environmental organizations, but also for the prophetic voices of faith groups—all faiths—to name what is happening and call on our society to change quickly and radically.

I’d like to share a list of ten things you can do that give me hope:

  1. Calculate your ecological footprint and your household carbon footprint to determine a baseline, then commit to reducing it by 10 percent. When you find out how easy that was, commit to further reductions!
  2. Food: changing our eating habits can drastically lower our CO2 emissions. Eat less meat, which involves much more CO2 emissions in its production and processing. In particular, eat less fish! Jim Merkel says that by far the highest ecological footprint factor is that for carnivorous fish (e.g., tuna, swordfish). Environmentalist Karen Street’s numbers say carbon emissions for fish are at least as high as for beef. Also, try to eat fewer processed foods and more that are local and if possible organic—and just as important as organic is use of integrated pest management (IPM) by farmers. The average item in your supermarket travels 1,200 to 1,500 miles, so the embedded energy for those foods is much higher.
  3. Housing: the square footage of your housing and the extent of its insulation is directly correlated to the energy it takes to heat, cool, and maintain it and thus your footprint size. The distance you live from work or from transit is also directly related to your transport footprint. There are several ways you can reduce the energy spent on housing. If you are an empty nester in a larger home, provide a room to someone. I have a little row house in Philadelphia that is less than 1,000 square feet, but in order to cut my housing footprint in half, I now share it with another person for a very nominal rent that helps cover utilities and taxes. If you haven’t done as much insulation as possible, do it: attic sealing, basement sealing, etc.
  4. Transportation: this is a big one! Follow these basic rules: fly less; drive less and slower, and when you do drive, take someone along; better, use public transit.
  5. Learn about, then speak about, climate change. Be as informed as you possibly can be and keep taking in new information. Be open to hearing things you may not want to hear and considering scenarios and solutions you may not want to consider. Karen Street wrote in her article, “The Nuclear Energy Debate among Friends: Another Response” (FJJuly):Secretary of Energy Steven Chu warns that both cities and agriculture in California . . . may be gone by century’s end. These projections are based on assumptions many prefer not to make: that population will increase not decrease; that energy consumption will increase in less developed countries faster than it can decrease in the U.S. (if it can decrease here at all); and that technology for wind, hydro, and biomass can affordably deliver, at best, 30-35 percent of electricity by 2030, with solar not expected to come into significant play, according to the IPCC, until 2030 and after. . . . The unavoidable conclusion policymakers draw from the research cited in IPCC reports is that roughly two-thirds of electricity needs projected for 2030 (needs that are expected to be much greater than current levels) must be met by some combination of fossil fuels and nuclear power.Friends, if you don’t like that option, then let’s begin to take seriously how our faith calls us to change our lives and model something different for the rest of the world. Behavior change—conservation—could be a big contributor to avoiding the kind of growth that is being predicted. Could Friends take this on as the issue of this year and the decade to come? Yet, it’s critical to understand that individual changes, though important, can only reduce our footprint by about half. Therefore, we must also work for political change:Join Friends Committee on National Legislation’s legislative action network to keep up to date on such opportunities.Be aware of what preparations the United States is making for December meetings in Copenhagen—the climate change negotiations that are a follow-up to the Kyoto protocol. The Markey Waxman bill has just passed the House, but it is pitiful in terms of the reductions it will achieve, and Big Coal won huge concessions. The bill goes to the Senate this fall, which gives us another chance to advocate for a much stronger bill. (Checkto see where deliberations are. When you read this, there may still be time to contact senators.)
  6. Learn the workings of economics in order to confront the growth dilemma. Steven Chu refers to an assumption that world GDP will quadruple by 2050. If we cannot curb our growth, we will be forced to use more coal and nuclear. Friends Testimony on Economics (FTE)—a joint project of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Earthcare Working Group and Quaker Earthcare Witness—is starting a network of Friends willing to engage in confronting the growth dilemma. You can read Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy, by Geoff Garver and Peter Brown. And you can start a Sabbath Economics study group. My worship group read Sabbath Economics, Household Practicesby Matthew Colwell. This little book helps us look at what amounts to our addiction to consumerism and to work with it as a spiritual issue.
  7. Population: Jim Merkel has made a study of how small we can make our footprints and still have good quality of life. He’s gotten grad students to live happily in the summer on a footprint of three acres, but concedes that six to eight is more feasible. But, if you remember the fair share of biocapacity—4.2 acres—you’ll realize that we would still be at about 50 percent overshoot even if we all reduced to eight acres. The only answer then is fewer people. Jim Merkel tells us that if we got to the point where we truly understood the enormity of our dilemma and would voluntarily move to a practice of one child per family, it would take only 100 years to reduce the global population to 1 to 2 billion people. If you are of childbearing age, I ask you to consider having only one child. If you have a child of that age, talk to them and encourage adoption.
  8. On a less challenging note, find an Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream (ATD) symposium in your area and attend (see). There are Quakers trained to lead these inspiring, daylong programs. They grew out of a plea from an Indigenous tribe in Ecuador who, thanking a group of people who had helped them protect their forest, then added, “But if you really want to help us, please go home and change the dream of the north, for it is killing our planet.”
  9. Create a study discussion group. Learn about some of these issues and read some of the books I’ve mentioned together. Find out about the Transition Town initiative and, with your friends and neighbors, build resilience into your community while devising an energy descent plan. You do not have to do this alone! Together, as Dorothy Day said, “We need to build the new society within the shell of the old.” Together, as the ATD symposium says, “we can hospice the old, and midwife the new.”
  10. Find what is yours to do! This is what really gives me hope: that each of you will discern what God is asking of you. That you will do all that you do out of love—for God’s creation, for your brother and sister humans, and for all species of all time. That you, too, will fall in love with our precious living planet and protect it as if it were your child.

This article is drawn from a speech at the Friends General Conference Gathering in Blacksburg, Va., on July 2, and is reprinted by permission from Friends General Conference. ©2009 FGC. To acquire an mp3, CD, or DVD of Hollister’s full talk, go to

Hollister Knowlton

Hollister Knowlton, a member of Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., is clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Earthcare Working Group, a member of the Policy Committee of Friends Committee for National Legislation, and immediate past clerk of Quaker Earthcare Witness.