Friday, April 16, 2010



My response to George Owen:

I have previously written about the excruciating challenge of living Quaker values on this blog, when I reluctantly embraced nuclear power (see April 13) as the lesser of evils (vs. coal) for maintaining the grid to preserve “civil society.” My chief point was that those who railed against nukes without examining their own complicity in modernism and globalism were hypocrites. We live in a world deeply, perhaps fatally, compromised by our industrial choices.

When I go back and read my arguments about the (relative) morality of nuclear power, I am uncomfortable, though I thoroughly endorse my statement about simplicity: “I have no response other than shame to the challenge around simplicity, which does not exclude me even though I built a passive solar house from salvaged and local material, and now have added photovoltaic panels. So much that we take for granted in modern life is anything but simple, both materially and spiritually.” The assumption in all of this is that I dont' believe our society can extricate itself from modernity, entailing using resources far beyond their availability, until suddenly forced to by economic and ecosystem collapse. I don't say this cynically, simply realistically.

What George calls us to, though, is not economic or political realism, but a Quaker version of the purity of values which we like to think the early Christians lived. I recall a critique of Christianity which said that it was an unrealistic religion, virtually impossible to live up to. Obviously the critic was not speaking of mainstream Christianity, which has been captive since Constantine to empire, and is virtually a state religion as practiced by the religious right in this country. Rather, he was talking about the spiritual values taught by Jesus of Nazareth.

“Realistic” folks say we can't just drop our way of life; and we certainly can't go back to a previous level of existence. But realism is not going to be suffcient in these desperate times. Realism is what guides Barack Obama, or any politician, in working to get what is achievable over what is “right” or required by the facts. The fact is that nature does not compromise, and we have so far compromised the earth that she (Gaia) holds all the cards now. On the other hand, I know that two billion people on this planet, close to a third of humanity, are living a subsistent lifestyle, and a sustainable one. It does not require “going back” to an unrecoverable past to live like them.

With care, love, and sacrifice that is less painful because undertaken communally, we could do the same, though our lives would be vastly different, in ways that few are willing to contemplate. Yes, as I argued in my February post, we would end up living a lot more like our great-grandparents, and with a few carefully-chosen exceptions (like an internet decentrally powered, but with global reach), we would need to let go of the myth of progress.

Christianity seems to be impossible to embody when we respond from our individual flawed natures. But early Christians succeeded in living their values because they undertook the task of becoming a “peculiar people” communally. This was also true of early Quakers. When someone traveled in the ministry, often entailing great risk, they traveled in pairs, with an elder. The family left behind was supported in every way necessary by the greater Meeting family.

Fortunately, we live on a land-trust, Celo Community, which includes a thriving, caring Meeting. We have lifetime leases on personal housing and manage the 1100 acres and a few common structures through a consensus process. But though there are many common enterprises, we do not live communally, nor share incomes. We participate in a robust, but small community garden (4 families). In Celo Community, with a large percentage of Friends, we at least have a basis for the kind of transformation George calls us to.

But there are huge challenges. Anticipating a need for distributed energy, Geeta and I sought others to buy into a small photovoltaic facility on community common land to supplement our rural electric cooperative. We ran into many challenges about the business model, especially what to do when a shareholder left, and reverted to installing the panels on our own house. I agree with George that local communities need to be as self-reliant and resilient as possible, but who's going to pay for the distributed generating systems, and housing (if centralized) for the elderly, to give two examples?

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