William Penn became a Quaker in 1666, and immediately realized he had a problem. He was a member of the court of King Charles II. As a courtier, he was expected to wear a sword; as a Quaker, he had abjured the sword’s use. What to do? Legend says that he approached George Fox with this conundrum, and Fox cut through it with a simple test: Wear thy sword as long as thou canst.
Eighty years later, in 1746, John Woolman began traveling among Friends in the American Colonies with a concern to end slavery. The stories tell us that when Woolman rose to speak in the meetings he visited, he would often begin by talking about his hat. His hat was undyed, as was the rest of his clothing. Dye-making was a dangerous, health-destroying process that was commonly assigned to slaves; Friend Woolman thought that wearing dyed clothing while doing anti-slavery work was hypocrisy. His message to the Friends of his day was similar to Fox’s message to Penn: Wear thy dyed clothing as long as thou canst.
It is now 2020. As I write this in early January, war is once more threatening in the Middle East, and most of Australia is going up in flames that are fueled, directly or indirectly, by climate change. Friends are often active to end the scourges of war and ecological destruction. I applaud that activism, but I find it necessary to point to the same hypocrisy that Woolman did. Middle East wars and climate change have their roots in a common cause: oil. If you drive a gas-engine vehicle to an antiwar protest or a climate-change rally, you are complicit in the acts you are protesting.
I bought my own last tank of gas on October 31, 2018, at a Safeway supermarket gas station in Medford, Oregon. Shortly after that, my wife and I sold our two gasoline-powered cars and bought a Chevrolet Bolt EV. Since then, we have driven more than 15,000 gasoline-free miles. We refuel by pulling into our own garage and plugging in. Solar panels on our roof provide 30%-50% of our home’s electricity. We buy the rest from our power company’s “blue sky power” program (power produced from renewable resources). As a result, with possible minor exceptions for the few times we’ve fueled up at public charging stations on long-distance, not one inch of those 15,000 miles has come from the burning of fossil fuels.
We don’t burn fossil fuels at home, either. We have no appliances fueled by natural gas or oil. We have stopped flying, and we don’t have good access to trains or buses, so our direct use of carbon-based fuels at this time is essentially zero. Indirect uses remain, through the food and consumer goods we buy, but we’re working on that, too. We buy local as much as possible, which reduces fuel consumption for source-to-market transportation, and we’re reducing our use of plastic.
Our carbon footprint is about as low as it can go without withdrawing from the modern world, and we are not going to do that. George Fox famously exhorted Friends to “be patterns and examples.” Patterns and examples that involve undue sacrifice will not be followed. My leading – and I do consider it a leading – is to demonstrate that we can significantly reduce our use of petroleum without making onerous sacrifices.
The seeds of this leading were planted in the mid-1970s, in the days of oil embargoes, long lines at gas stations, and the first stirrings of popular understanding that the oil would someday run out. I was a member of the Executive Committee of the Sierra Club’s Northwest Chapter at that time; our meetings were usually held in Portland, 300 miles from my home in southern Oregon, and I remember clearly the cognitive dissonance I regularly felt as I made those 600-mile round-trip drives to discuss ways to encourage people to use less gas. Later came the Gulf War, and the Iraq War, and the beginnings of concern for climate change. The Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and environmentalists responded with an ad carrying a picture of the ship’s captain with these words: It wasn’t his driving that caused the Alaska oil spill. It was yours. That message haunted me for years. It still does.
I joined the Society of Friends in 1980 and quickly found myself serving on several committees of North Pacific Yearly Meeting. We met in Portland to discuss issues of war and the environment; the round-trip distances I had to drive hadn’t shrunk. The disjointed feeling grew.
Early in 2008 came a shock. My best friend, four days younger than I was, died suddenly while hiking. I read the newspaper headline, “65-Year-Old Man Found Dead,” and realized that his age – and mine – made his death unremarkable to most people. With my wife’s support and encouragement, I adopted the slogan, “If not now, when?” and began working on our carbon-footprint reduction in earnest. By the end of June, 2010, we had sold our house, bought a house with better solar access, and mounted a 3000-watt solar array on the roof. The new house was the same size as the old one, and we brought everything with us. I began referring to reducing our carbon use without changing our lifestyle as a leading.
By that time, we had been limiting our use of gasoline for many years – first by driving smaller cars, then hybrids. In 2014, we got a Chevrolet Volt, an electric car that carried a gasoline-powered generator to recharge the battery when its juice ran out. The presence of the generator meant that we were still driving partly on gasoline. It was practical, but it still felt immoral. Every time the Volt shifted from its battery to its generator, I got a feeling that seemed opposite to the feeling of being called to give vocal ministry during worship: Instead of “You must do this,” I felt “You must NOT do this.” Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough money to buy a fully electric vehicle. We did, however, have a Charles Schulz original drawing for one of the early Peanuts strips. We turned that over to an auction house, and it sold for an amount that exactly matched the difference between the resale value of our hybrids and the cost of a new EV. In our family, this is known as a “coincigod.” In Quaker terms, “way had opened.” We have not been to a gas station since.
Leadings are laid before you as opportunities, not as commands. You are free to accept or reject them. Once accepted, though, they take over. You are not simply led, but used. You become the task you are led to do. Your perspective shifts from “I can do this thing” to “I cannot not do this thing.” You wear the sword until you cannot.
I cannot tell you to stop buying gas. I bought gas as long as I could. I cannot buy it any more. ~~~
Bill Ashworth is an environmental writer, musician, and retired librarian who photographs wildflowers on the side. He is a member of South Mountain Meeting in Ashland, OR (NPYM).