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What Friends Can Bring

Philip Clayton
On Perception (March 2023)
Healing the World

The Institute for Ecological Civilization (EcoCiv) was founded in 2015 as an outcome of an international conference convened at Claremont Colleges, attended by 1,500 people. Focused on the theme “Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization,” the conference sought to build a systematic foundation for a global transition to an ecological civilization. Along with serving as president of EcoCiv, I am also a member of Claremont Friends Meeting. I would like to share some views of our world’s ecological crisis, as seen from the perspective of traditional Quaker values.

COP27, the United Nations climate summit held in Egypt last November, brought home a painful truth: world leaders are unlikely to take the decisive steps that are needed to avoid continuing mass extinctions and eventual ecosystem collapse. They won’t ease the current suffering that the climate crisis is bringing to many peoples, nor the consequences that it will bring to future generations. Put differently: mainstream politics and economics are not going to solve the climate crisis that they have created. The necessary truthful statements and transformative actions are not going to come from the powerful. They must come from us – the (relatively) powerless.

If this conclusion sounds familiar, it should. Quakers have long turned away from the so-called moral authority of professional priests – ever since the days of George Fox. Our tradition is for each person to seek the moral authority of the Inward Light directly and then test any insights with members of their local faith community.

Traditional Quaker attitudes and actions, often counter-cultural, are becoming increasingly relevant to climate activism. Consider these three examples:

FIRST: Protest action is a traditional component of Quaker faith. Strong action to protect the planet and future generations is now required – action that requires counter-cultural organizing. As the mainstream stumbles forward, one inadequate step after the other, protest actions become necessary. Remember Greta Thunberg’s most famous exhortation, “I have learned you are never too small to make a difference.” A year later, she added:

We can no longer let the people in power decide what is politically possible. We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not “blah, blah, blah.” Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action. And hope always comes from the people.

When the Paris Climate Agreement was settled in 2015, then signed by 193 countries and the European Union, it looked like the nations of the world just might take the lead and do what needs to be done. But the results of the 2022 climate summit have made it abundantly clear that today’s politicians are not ready or willing to step up to the challenge of climate chaos.

The only people we can now expect to bring about radical change are outsiders, opponents of the dominant system. People who lack social and economic power must now speak truth to power. This place of standing together against the dominant culture, no matter the cost, is a place that Quakers know well. At its best, ours is a prophetic tradition, and we are at our best when we speak out against injustice.

SECOND: Allyship with the dispossessed is a traditional aspect of Quaker faith. Quakers throughout history have known what it means when governments, businesses, and even mainstream religions refuse to heed a massive moral consensus: it means that a time has come for Friends to stand up in protest with others, with those who are ready to suffer the consequences of nonviolent resistance.

In the current moral crisis, we must join the side of resistance against powers and policies that favor extractive industries – especially against extraction of coal and petroleum. As we march with others who are calling polluters to account, we discover that they have become our friends and allies. One lesson of allyship that I learned from the Black Lives Matter movement is conveyed through this adage:

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
– Aboriginal Activists Group, Queensland, 1970s

This understanding of community is deeply resonant with our Quaker faith. Religions that are based on creeds emphasize right belief, or orthodoxy. In contrast, Friends emphasize right action, or orthopraxy. We join together in community with others who also feel inclined to take similar action. Through communal discernment, we seek divine guidance toward a good way forward.

Our brothers and sisters are those who stand up against polluters and climate-deniers, those who protest against unjust business practices, those who reduce consumption and consciously change their lifestyles, those who strive for a truly “ecological civilization” on earth.

THIRD: Localism and simplicity are traditional aspects of Quaker faith. Quaker tradition can help support the growing trend toward local community development among ecological activists. Living ecologically, helping others to do the same, and incarnating our deepest values of love and justice: these work best at the local level. Quakers have always emphasized the importance of small communities, groups of Friends gathering in monthly Meetings. We have centuries of experience with basing our lives – and our religion – in simple practices that are actually often quite difficult: learning to get along, serving each other’s needs, listening deeply, overcoming differences without violence.

Besides these three positive contributions that “our Quaker faith” can make toward climate justice, individual Friends can also make their own unique contributions.

For myself, as I watch the environmental impacts of climate chaos growing more dire every day, I find that my work with EcoCiv and my identity as a Quaker are converging. Over the last few years, I have worked hard to attract support and funding for EcoCiv from mainline agencies and foundations. The fiasco of COP27 is one of many reasons that I am losing faith in “the powers that be.”

As Friends, we often stand as a radical alternative to the dominant culture. Our voices and actions are strongest when we direct them clearly against the damaging effects of power. Our Quaker identity and communities are strongest when we live by Fox’s instruction to “be valiant for the truth upon earth; tread and trample upon all that is contrary.” (Launceston Jail, 1656)

For more information about EcoCiv, please visit https://ecociv.org.  And please do scroll to the bottom of the homepage and add your name to our mailing list.  ~~~

Philip Clayton is a member of Claremont Friends Meeting (PacYM) and president of the Institute for Ecological Civilization.


Climate action COP27

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