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Seeking Right Relationship with Our Earth

Shelley Tanenbaum
On Consumption (May 2013)

Shelley Tanenbaum serves as clerk of Quaker Earthcare Witness and Quaker Institute for the Future.  She is a member of Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, CA. Shelley and her husband run a consulting company, ENVAIR, which conducts research on regional air quality trends, with an emphasis on ozone and particulates.

The following interview was conducted by phone on April 17, 2013, was transcribed by Solomon Smilack, and was edited lightly.

Western Friend: I’d like to start by asking you to talk about the organizations you’re engaged with.

Shelley Tanenbaum: Quaker Earthcare Witness [QEW] is an umbrella organization for North American Friends who are working on earth care. It is a networking organization, and it provides mutual support for people who are exploring what it means to be spiritually connected with the natural world. I think a growing edge for Quakers is to discern what is our relationship with the natural world. You know, you can pull out quotes here and there, some from Woolman and others. But certainly over history as Quakers we haven’t emphasized what it means to be part of the natural world. What does it mean to be in right relationship with each other and our ecosystem?

I see this question as critically important for Friends right now. We universally accept the concept of “That of God in everyone” or “That of Spirit in everyone,” but we haven’t extended that concept to “There’s that of Spirit in all creation.” Over the last twenty years, I’ve seen big changes in this regard, but we’re still a long ways from having any kind of unity in this area.

QEW’s steering committee is made up of representatives from over 20 yearly meetings plus an additional 15 at-large members. We have a journal that comes out every other month, and in between we send out an electronic newsletter. We meet twice a year face-to-face. In between we have electronic meetings. We are exploring how to have worshipful meetings when we’re on Skype. We’re getting better at it, but it’s a challenge! We are aware of the impact that our travel has on the environment, and we’re trying to cut back on travel without losing the connections that we get in person. Our deep connections with each other help to strengthen our spiritual connections with the natural world.

WF:  When you say “strengthen our spiritual connections,” what does that look like?

ST:  It looks like meeting with people who you know share the concerns that you have and sitting in worship with them and hearing their stories. We use the love we have for the environment to guide us in both our political actions and our day-to-day actions. How do we live? What do we do to live in right relationship with the environment and each other? Those of us living in North America are quite aware of how affluent we are when it comes to how many resources we consume. Our over consumption informs a lot of our actions and our goals.

WF: What have been some of your key areas of policy work over the last couple years?

ST: Because QEW is the largest Quaker organization that works on environmental issues, we see ourselves as a voice for Quakers on these concerns. We often are asked to sign onto statements with other organizations. We have an accreditation with the United Nations as an NGO. We have a committee that works on UN and international-related issues, attending those meetings and reporting back with published articles about them. We coordinate our work with QUNO, the Quaker UN Office. Similarly, we work closely with FCNL, supporting their lobbying efforts on energy and environmental issues. We think it’s important to raise our voice to speak out about climate change and the right sharing of world resources.

The other group I work with, which is more focused on policy questions, is Quaker Institute for the Future [QIF]. QIF supports research on the interaction between economics and environmental sustainability. QIF is guided by the questions, “What does it mean to live sustainably, and what does it mean to share resources globally?” Our most recent publication is called Beyond the Growth Dilemma: towards an ecologically-integrated economy. This booklet describes how the economy works, and why there is a  problem with constantly expanding an economy that uses up non-renewable resources.

WF: This raises for me a question about vision. What is your realistic vision of the world we can be working for?

ST: What ultimate purpose drives my effort? We need to find a way to live with integrity. We have to examine our current way of living both personally and corporately. Not just what are we doing personally, such as what kind of car are we driving or not driving. But also, how is our society structured? How does that accord with our values? What do we need to do both individually and corporately to bring our way of living into alignment with our values?

There are all kinds of creative ways that people are finding to live more sustainably. Technology is not going to be the problem; it’s having the will to do it. It will mean changes, and people don’t like to change. There’s a lot of money involved in us continuing to live the way we’re living right now. 

WF: That’s where drag is, people’s attitudes. To see movement there is hopeful.

ST:  One positive recent example is the organizing around the Keystone XL pipeline. The kind of people who are coming out to protest it are not necessarily the typical environmental activists. It’s great to see. There are farmers and ranchers who are understanding how it is going to impact their land and who are out there protesting along with the typical environmental activists. It’s heartening to see the broader base.

WF: I am interested in how professional training fits in here. Where does professional expertise give us more leverage to achieve the goals we want in environmental healing? Where is the issue really one of spiritual development?

ST:  I think it’s a good combination, because your worldly knowledge and professional background tell you where to put your focus. You can have feelings about something, but if you don’t understand how something works, it’s hard to know what to work on. You might have a general feeling of “Everything is messed up.” But you need to have some scientific or technical background, some understanding of how things really are affecting the air or water or whatever you’re worried about. There are some things that are polluting but they are only polluting a tiny amount. Should you spend your time on them, or instead work on something that is doing a whole lot of polluting? Don’t do something just because it makes you feel good. I think, unfortunately, a lot of Friends do that, saying “I feel good because I’m doing something for the world.”

So it’s important to know the science. But you’re not going to be motivated to work on it unless you have the spiritual side. The Spirit is what is going to give you the passion and the drive to work on it.

WF: Are there efforts you could give as examples of actions that seem misguided to you?

ST: Well, I wouldn’t say misguided, but I would say inadequate. Some Friends are very pleased that they are recycling or changing their light bulbs, and those are really good things to do, but they are inadequate. It’s not okay to do a couple things like that and then think you’ve done your bit for the environment. Those things can give you the false sense that you are doing your part, when we need to be doing a whole lot more as individuals and as organizations and as a society.

WF: What are the high-leverage changes that we should we be focusing on?

ST: We all need to be thinking about travel. My meeting did a survey many years ago on how we are using energy. A large chunk of the energy we were using, about a third, had to do with travel. It’s one of the hardest things for Friends to give up. We have installed solar panels, we have insulated our houses, and we have cut back on our driving. Most Friends have made changes to their lifestyle to live less energy-intensely. But it’s really hard for people to cut back on travel. People want to visit their families, and our families are so spread out. For many Quakers, they also want to attend distant meetings such as FGC. It’s a real challenge.

When I joined the board of Quaker Institute for the Future, we were meeting three times per year face-to-face, flying all over North America. I said, “We can’t do this.” Now we meet once per year face-to-face and we meet twice per year electronically. We have lost something, in that we don’t see each other, but there are also gains to the electronic meetings. One of our board members was in the UK, and he was able to join us electronically. A meeting for worship electronically actually works. It’s not quite the same, but we’re continually finding ways to make it more worshipful.

The other side to this is that there are things our society needs to work on that individuals can’t do. If you live in a place that doesn’t have decent public transportation,

it’s difficult to use public transportation. It’s something that we as a society need to come together to say, “We want to support this; we want to put our tax money into having a good public transit system so that people have an alternative.”

WF: I want to re-ask one question in a more focused way: What is your sense of the particular contribution that Quakers can bring to the global conversation about taking better care of our planet?

ST: Quakers have traditionally worked on Peace and Social Justice issues. A lot of Friends will agree that taking care of the environment is important, but they don’t see it as their number one priority. As Friends, it is time to recognize that these issues are interlinked. If we are not taking care of our environment or worrying about the sharing of resources, what does that say about Social Justice? The more there is Climate Chaos, the more there is resource scarcity, then the more there is war. It isn’t just about cleaning trails so people can go hiking, it’s about creating a world that is sustainable and that will be there for the next generations.

FCNL has quite a good reputation in Washington. They are doing some work in this area, and I would love to see them do more. I would love to see them bring their reputation to these issues. Similarly, QUNO is well respected internationally, and I would like to see them put more of an emphasis on climate chaos. Internationally, this is the issue of our time.

Equality and Fairness are highly valued by Quakers and it’s important for us to bring that into the discussion. It’s important for us to live a lifestyle that matches the values we hold.  

Environmentalism Ecojustice Nature Technology fairness QUNO

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