Some Reflections on the FCNL Annual Meeting, November 2001

Karen Street

Friends met the second weekend in November to discuss the proposed environmental policy for Friends Committee on National Legislation. With some changes, the policy was approved. This report is one Friend’s observations.

There is much that is good about the policy statement, particularly its attention to overconsumption and overpopulation, and to regional and international cooperation.

But many people present asked what makes this a Quaker policy, and some wondered what process of discernment lay behind it.

Regarding discernment, Pacific Yearly Meeting’s new Faith and Practice quotes Patricia Loring: “Some of our greatest difficulties arise when we revert to the easy idea of 'Quaker principles' or 'Quaker values' rather than discernment. In an effort to avoid the laborious and uncertain, intuitive process of discernment, modern Friends often advert to Quaker principles or values. The principles are usually a reduction of one of the testimonies to a generalized moral obligation rather than to a statement of the vision of life attuned to Divine Love that comes of the gathered meeting.”

At the FCNL meeting, I heard no reference to Quaker principles or Quaker values, or to the more difficult process Loring describes.

Two important differences between the concerns of scientists and of Friends appeared in this policy. First, Friends lack the sense of urgency felt in the scientific community. And second, Friends and scientists often disagree on which issues are important and why.

People who study the environment see dangerous, perhaps catastrophic, environmental destruction already begun. In the scientific community, there is consensus that current trends in population, development, and land use, will lead inexorably to the loss of about one fourth of all terrestrial species by 2030. Climate change may kill off the coral reefs by 2030, and with them half of marine diversity. This paucity of biodiversity is likely to exist for the remainder of the lifetime of our species. Carbon emissions are expected to produce significant loss of life and significant environmental damage in the 21st century. There is no consensus on how much they should be reduced; nevertheless, many recommend that the world reduce carbon emissions by half or more within 20 years. This can occur only if the U.S. reduces emissions even more, and would require severe changes in behavior in addition to improved technology.

However, urgency about how radical and how rapid the changes must be was not present at the FCNL Meeting.

Few younger Friends participated in this meeting. Most younger Friends present, and several older ones, commented on how world views differ between generations. They see most younger Friends showing the same attraction to overconsumption as their elders, but less certainty that the Earth’s beauty and resources will outlast them. Younger Friends were very interested in transportation. Older Friends had little interest in transportation, but many thought nuclear power and transgenic crops (genetically modified crops) important topics.

There was little curiosity about what scientists say. The FCNL policy barely acknowledged or omitted entirely much of what scientists are concerned about, particularly agriculture and water policy, and land use. Few seemed aware of “Smart Growth”, the modern movement addressing social justice, and infrastructure problems such as transportation and land use.

While there was much overlap with scientists’ recommendations, some positions were taken in opposition to those of the scientific community. Most prominent were disagreements on nuclear power and transgenic crops, although there were others. Friends appear unaware of what scientists say, that the FCNL policy often disagrees with scientific consensus, and the significance of disagreeing with highly trained people who have been studying the issues for years.

The National Academy of Sciences, the President’s Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST), and other groups were created to provide reliable characterizations of the best understanding of the science community. The highly respected 1997 PCAST report Federal Energy Research and Development for the Challenges of the Twenty-first Century, which addresses efficiency and energy technology, was dismissed by some as a lobbyist’s publication.

Scientific understanding provides us a basis from which to make moral decisions. Many Friends reverse this order. The goals of PCAST and others are to reduce the health and environmental costs of energy, address national security concerns such as heavy dependence on oil, and keep energy affordable. In selecting other “moral” priorities, and then providing “scientific justification”, we risk using pseudo-science to justify pseudo-morality; we risk working against people who wish to save lives and protect the environment.

When Friends demonize nuclear power and transgenic crops, important issues are neglected.

First on any scientist’s list of agricultural problems is habitat destruction, including the consequences of water diversion and the introduction of exotic species. Second are pesticide and fertilizer use, and monoculture. Third is everything else. The FCNL environmental policy addressed one issue from the third group, transgenic crops, and did not address the first two categories at all.

Similarly, renewable power, no matter how polluting, is considered good, while nuclear power and military waste are evil. One Friend spoke for many when he said, “There is a qualitative difference between the problems of fossil fuels and nuclear power, because of the possibility of accidents in nuclear power plants.” Since more people die in the U.S. every month from fossil fuel use, not counting accidents or problems like acid rain and climate change, than are likely to die from Chernobyl over 80 years, this belief in a “qualitative difference” is necessary to explain Friends’ relative lack of interest in the much more important quantitative effect of the use of fossil fuels.

The policy addresses animal testing, but fails to acknowledge more than 2,000 Americans who die annually from the mining and transportation of coal, or the tens of thousands of miners, farm workers, and others who become ill each year from occupational exposure. Transportation, possibly the largest cause of the most severe environmental problems, receives no more space than transgenic engineering, which has not yet shown to be a problem.

Many comments indicated denial. One person complained the policy is Earth-centered, and did not deal with the (remote) possibility that we might dump our nuclear waste in outer space. Another said, “Whatever species replaces man, que sera, sera.”

I don’t know why denial is so pervasive. My guess is that the magnitude and rapidity of the changes occurring on Earth are hard for us to deal with, as is our guilt that we are the cause. A policy goal that we should pay the full cost of fossil fuels was removed after one person pointed out, “The full cost of fossil fuels is enormous.”

Of course, the change in the world’s environment will lead to a change in Friends’ perceptions, in parallel with changes in the public’s perceptions. But to be leaders rather than followers, it is necessary to practice the uncertain and laborious discernment Loring advocated.

Our ability to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem may depend on our willingness to confront our fears and guilt over the changes that are occurring, to question intellectually and spiritually what is happening, and to ask how we want to live so that we are happy with ourselves rather than simply asking what will make us happy.

Return to Friends Energy Project Home Page