Is the environment a testimony?

Friends discerning?
Friends discerning?

Friends’ (Quakers) testimonies are the ways our lives testify to our faith. William Braithwaite (1862-1922) said,

The Friend had a life within him to wait on and to obey, not chiefly a creed to believe; and it was this life which developed in the Quaker groups a common body of truths to which they sought to bear unflinching witness. Accordingly they accumulated ‘testimonies’ rather than Articles of Faith.

In Pacific Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, we think about testimonies in six categories: integrity, unity, equality, simplicity, peace, and community.

We are not consistent however. Our Faith and Practice (each Yearly Meeting describes every few years the current Faith and Practice of Friends in their YM) says about integrity:

When lives are centered in the Spirit, beliefs and actions are congruent, and words are dependable.

It seems to me that we do most poorly around issues where there are strong emotions and where we have not yet engaged in collective discernment. Two environmental examples, there are more:
• nuclear power (Friends often display anger in our discussions, though much less today than a decade ago. And some Friends don’t participate in the discussion “because we’re not going to reach unity anyway”.)
• discussions of how we live, and how we want to live, are rare. Many Friends worry that such discussions will be about guilt. (I would hope that they are mostly about choosing how to live and love.)

In the discussion leading up to the 2001 Faith and Practice, some advocated strongly that the F&P revision (discipline) committee describe the environment as a testimony, that is, we should consider the environment to be important. This is backwards, as testimonies are described in writing after they exist in our lives. The committee described it instead as an emerging concern. I wrote members of the committee to ask why they decided against the testimony description, and received four responses:

• we do not live as if the environment were of major importance,
• we have not labored together to understand its importance,
• we do not talk honestly together about our beliefs and about the hard issues, and
• we do not challenge each other on our beliefs and on our manner of living.

Now the environment committee of Berkeley Friends Meeting has announced a series to ask what would be required of Friends for the environment to be considered a testimony, and to see where Friends are today.

In a minute approved by the Yearly Meeting in 2007, we agreed to a variety of actions, including:

Reducing meeting-wide, personal greenhouse gases at least 10% in the coming year through decreased driving, flying, and home energy use, and using efficient alternatives, for those able to do so

This will be the basis of the first in the series, time still tbd: How have our greenhouse gas emissions changed over the last year?

We have great hopes for the series. Besides testing whether and how the environment is a testimony, we hope as well to determine what small steps we can make, so ultimately our lives do testify to the importance of the environment.

5 Responses to “Is the environment a testimony?”

  1. Heather says:

    The one problem I see with making the environment a testimony is that it could exacerbate class-related issues and make people of lower incomes feel excluded or guilty because they cannot afford to, for instance, buy organic food, use solar panels, or get a more fuel-efficient car. Of course there are always things that can be done affordably and easily, such as recycling, but I know from personal experience that living in an environmentally friendly way can be very expensive and while I bend over backwards to buy organic food and safe cleaning products and such, many people cannot afford to do so – it’s difficult enough for me.

    It is very unfortunate that our society puts us in a situation where it costs more to live healthily and conscientiously than the reverse, but such is the case. Testimonies like plainness, truthfulness or peace, can be followed by anyone regardless of class or how much is on their paycheck (or so it seems to me).

    If the environment were a testimony, how would one take this issue into account and avoid letting “virtue” – i.e. strictness or completeness of adherence to the testimony – be dependent on income?

  2. Hystery says:

    As I see it, an environmentalist testimony makes sense as a necessary development of one’s holy responsibility for right relationship with Life, with stewardship, and with peace.

    I share Heather’s concern that currently, in the United States at least, low-impact lifestyle choices are too frequently associated with high incomes. It is easier to honor the environment when one’s income allows one to make more expensive, green consumer choices. Such does not have to be the case. Part of our collective goal is to rethink consumerism, green technology, etc. to make sustainability easier rather than harder for poor, working and middle income people to achieve. Education and consumer awareness may be the first practical steps in such reform. For instance, making and growing one’s own foods and products are less expensive and greener options for many. Voluntary simplicity is one option people can explore as an alternative to both conventional and “green” consumerism.

    Another point I’d like to make is that pacifism is also easier for rich folks than it is for poor folks. The poor have always filled the military’s ranks. It is easier to recruit and draft those with fewer means to resist. It is easier to be a rich pacifist. One can afford lawyers. One can choose college or send one’s children to college. One can even leave a warring country more easily. Not so if one is poor. Poor pacifists must make harder decisions to maintain their commitment to peace.

    That a testimony is hard, that a burden for the sake of the Divine is heavy, does not excuse us of our responsibility but as Heather suggests, we must also be responsible to brothers and sisters whose burdens are heavier. We must share their load.

  3. Karen Street says:

    Thanks Heather and Hystery!

    Actually, the richest have the highest impact. They fly and drive more, and live in larger houses, which require more heating, cooling, and bigger TVs.

    Compact fluorescent light bulbs cost less over their lifetime than do incandescent, but are more expensive initially. So we might want to offset some of our greenhouse gas emissions by donating CFL’s to our local food bank. This is a good project for a Monthly Meeting or an individual. I even provide a way to figure out how many bulbs will offset one airplane trip. One Montana Friend told me that his Meeting is considering how to give low interest loans to people wanting to insulate and buy more efficient appliances. There’s lots we can do!

    No matter what others can or cannot do–and they may be impeded monetarily or for other reasons–we can make personal choices about whether to take the train or fly, whether to live so as to minimize the use of cars, and so on. And we can find ways to corporately look at both policy issues and our behavior.

    But the written environment testimony will not appear until our lives testify to its importance. And this is where we want to start.

  4. Karen, as much as I admire the Quakers, I tend to view view the witness-testimony approach to fighting global warming as rather shallow. I switched my home lighting to Compact fluorescent light bulbs a dozen years ago, when the bulbs were very expensive – $10 a bulb – and they were hard to find. I made the switch, not as a spiritual witness, but because I realized that a significant portion of my large Dallas air conditioning electric bill was paying to cool my incandescent lights. I chose to purchase energy savings appliances, and high gas millage cars because of the money savings they brought. I note with some satisfaction that I made these choices for entirely practical reasons, long before the Quakers decided to make such issues a matter of testimony.

    You state, “it is very unfortunate that our society puts us in a situation where it costs more to live healthily and conscientiously than the reverse, but such is the case.” My experience has been just the opposite, that the conflict is not between cost and morality, but between cost savings and impractical convention. Morality, in the cases you refer too, is just an excuse to do what is practical as opposed to now outdated conventions. I would be more impressed with the Quaker witness if we were told not that planet friendly behavior was a witness and a burden, but that it was a practical way to save money.

  5. Heather says:

    Hystery, thanks for your reminder about the peace testimony – I qualified my earlier comment with “(it seems to me)” because I figured someone would correct me. The truth is, I think, pretty much everything is harder for the poor.