Quakers Reflections: the sustainability of selfishness

August 25, 2014 in Resources and Research, Society of Friends: Quakers, Uncategorized by M C

In the blog Among Friends, written by Quakers, John Edminster attributes global warming, or climate change, to selfishness.  And he certainly has a point.. most of us are, at some level, selfish.  “Power-rich or power-poor, He declares, we all combine to maintain this scapegoating Me-first and Us-first culture out of which arises this selfish ravaging of the earth..”

Unfortunately he goes on to say “unchecked by care for the common good.” 

I have sat with John’s essay for several days now, referring to it every time I pull up my browser before moving on to other business.  And I can not grasp the clarity of his vision.  I have come to believe I do not have clarity on his vision because I do not understand how he defines a common good.  The line sounds marvelous, it rolls off the tongue with the thunder of a Methodist minister on a Sunday morning.. full of sound and fury, but.. what does it mean?

The New England Yearly Meeting’s Queries ask of Quakers:

  • Do you endeavor to create political, social, and economic institutions which will sustain and enrich the life of all?

I would argue that it is not possible to create social or economic institutions which will sustain and enrich the life of all without recognizing and celebrating selfishness.  Without selfishness there is no human life, for what is reproduction but an essentially selfish act, the selfish desire to create life itself, a generation to come after us?  A truly selfless person would use no resources but wander barefoot scavenging roots and berries until they selflessly succumbed to cold and hunger.

And even that is a selfish act, for surely a selfless person would have labored in the field to feed his neighbor instead of wandering to feed himself.  Yet how could his neighbor, equally committed to selflessness, eat what came from that field.. should it not be passed on to someone else?

The whole system of selflessness falls flat in the face of the need to create institutions which sustain and enrich the life of all.

Economies built on collectivism and selfless contribution work in small and isolated communities.  They don’t work on a grand scale.  There are few working examples of large socialist economies, with each giving to the best of their ability, and taking according to a pre-determined level of need, that show lives sustained and enriched.  And while prayer and reflection might, over some unimaginable period of time, bring harmony to this system, empirical evidence seems to suggest the system will fall into chaos long before this harmony of heart is reached.

Who, John cries can change a culture?”

God, he tells us, an all-wise God, or a Changer of Hearts. But were we not given free will?  The ability to choose our culture? God may be able to change a culture, but I can’t imagine why an all-wise God would give us intelligence, imagination, and free will… and then yank it all away to hand us a.. culture.  That’s just not logical.  Or reasonable, come to that.

Who, John demands can change a culture?”

It is such a wonderfully naive question it makes me smile.  Because cultures can be changed.  By us.  We do it all the time.

Thirty years ago who’d have thought locally grown foods would be sustaining large tracts of land, growing tons of organic vegetables, on failed dairy farms in northern Vermont?  Who would have looked twice at the small house movement, or Make Do and Mend which has captured the imaginations of young people across Britain?  People can, and do, make the decision to change their priorities and reorder their culture all the time, adopting that which works, discarding that which does not.

Men (with, presumably, the input of women..) have even made the decision to, on occasion, stop time.  The Japanese did it when they decided gunpowder was taking all the fun out of warfare and banned it.. returning to the Samurai warrior with such thoroughness that when the British arrived in the 18th century there were no guns left in Japan.  On the Chesapeake, Maryland made the decision to ban the harvest of oysters by powerboats, leaving the beds to the skipjacks… guess which side of the Chesapeake still has healthy oyster beds?

When I was in my twenties recycling was something only strange hippie freaks did, now the Vermont Sanitation Department is advertising for a liaison to help area schools prepare for the zero waste initiative which goes into law some time in the near future.

What is a sustainable social and economic system which enriches life?  It is a system which is not sustained by fear.  The capitalist system feeds on fear.. of lost wages, lost savings, lost opportunities.  Nor is it a system supported by guilt and denial, the essence of selflessness carried to a logical end.

A sustainable system is rooted in joy, creativity, and shared experiences… but primarily it is rooted in the security of enough.  And defining enough is culture.  What constitutes success, security, what defines enough is a cultural norm.  What is enough  for my Mormon neighbors is not the same as what defines enough for the tourists which visit their farm stand.  And yet they are a thriving example of a culture of enough in a greater culture struggling to find the boundaries of want and need.

Fiona McCade, writing for the Scotsman, (Lighter wardrobe way to a man’s heart) discovered some scary statistics when it comes to women and their clothes.  Apparently the average Western woman now owns 400 per cent more garments than her counterpart did 30 years ago.  Thirty years ago? That’s 1984.  A good 40 years after the rationing of WWII and the privations of the Depression.  1984 is a time of relative prosperity, so the statistic isn’t skewed by war or an economic collapse.  We now have 400% more clothes in our drawers and closets than we did 30 years ago.

Furthermore, according to the Scottish McCade, women need to find room in their closets for four-and-a-half stone’s worth of new clothes every year.

In translation? If my math is correct 4.5 stone is 65 pounds of new clothing purchases every year.  Year after year.  Between the ages of 20 and 40 the average woman purchases more than half a ton of clothing. No wonder there is an entire industry devoted to building ever larger closets with more cubbies, poles, and drawers, for clothing storage.  And another growing industry dedicated to doing nothing but removing and recycling clothing from those very closets.

That.. that is culture.  And changing it does not require divine intervention.  It requires creativity.  It requires example.  It requires patience.. the garment industry wasn’t built in a day, and it won’t be undone overnight. But what it requires most of all is an enthusiastic adaptation of old clothes, remade fashion, and, if one must buy new, we choose our fashion carefully.  It requires we pay attention to who is designing our clothing, on the materials we’re buying, and the chain of production.  We buy less, buy better, and speak loudly and enthusiastically about our choices.  It is impossible to create a sustainable culture based on want and denial.  It is possible to create a sustainable culture rooted in an appreciation of enough.  Beautiful enough to last for decades, sustainable enough to be reproduced, expensive enough to be a challenge, difficult enough to employ many in the creation.

I, for one, am saving up for a Harris Tweed Jacket.  If my understanding of Harris Tweed is correct the fabric for that jacket will sustain a hand weaving industry a century old.. and the jacket will last a century.  A good bargain at any price, even if I drop dead a half century shy of the jacket’s working life.

The Japanese threw away gunpowder.  Maryland snubbed the powerboat.  Vermont grows acres of organic vegetables and is about to be a zero waste state.  And Harris Tweed endures. Mores change, cultures change, and while there might be a divine hand in there somewhere, likely most folks aren’t too concerned about whether or not God in heaven likes that old dress.

But they do care if you do.  So say so.. it is within your power light up someone’s life, and change the world.


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