Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Sustainability: Personal Witness

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them …

George Fox’s call to personal witness has resonated with Quakers from the beginning.

John Woolman, an eighteenth century American Friend, remains a model for Quakers today, best known for his witness against slavery. He gave up a lucrative trade and adopted a simple lifestyle, speaking and writing against injustice. He avoided riding in stagecoaches because of the cruel treatment of horses and wore undyed cloth partly because of the toxic substances used in dyeing. He was aware even then of the responsibility to take care of the earth’s resources for future generations to enjoy.

Friends today know that they witness (well or not so well) to the sustainability testimony all the time through the way they dress, eat, travel, furnish and heat their homes, earn a living and invest their money. They know that they also witness through the way they relate to others, from co-workers and neighbours to their political representatives and others in positions of power. This is deeply challenging.

In 2013-14 QUNO undertook interviews with many Friends around the world, asking about their personal witness to sustainability, and what inspired, motivated and kept them going. Some interviewees had been active for decades; for others the journey had been more recent. Some were focusing on needs within their own lives and communities, others on national and international efforts. Between them they demonstrated many innovative and diverse ways of engaging their communities, and they revealed much passion, insight and commitment.

QUNO published a representative collection of twenty of these stories in Call to Conscience. The personal witness included takes many different forms, such as:
  • Working to stop deforestation and establish sustainable water supplies in Africa
  • Supporting local communities in the Philippines to recover traditional, low-input agriculture
  • Acts of civil disobedience to stop mountaintop removal coal mining in the United States
  • Teaching young people leadership skills for a sustainable world
  • Demonstrating the feasibility of zero-carbon living through technology and lifestyle choices.

People describe their Inspiration and motivation for this witness in different ways. For example:
“In my experience, most people are not aware of climate change. So I am just trying to introduce this topic and work with them right now.
I would love to have children and I want to leave them a planet on which they can have a good living and future.”
The decisions we make today will ripple forward and affect future generations in a way that decisions that previous generations made did not. “
Not acting at all in the public realm is a vote for business as usual.”
I was seeing the science in the mid-Eighties, realising climate change was something we had to address … All I’ve seen since is an ongoing underestimation of the urgency.”
“You could see people hanging there with containers expecting a drop of water, but there was no drop. Seasons are changing.”
I think the more that we can feel part of something larger than ourselves the easier it is to act with hope and not be stuck in despair.”
Many spoke of the challenges they encountered:

Our big challenge is really how we appeal to the hearts of people who feel differently about climate change.
Maybe I would like too much to change too quickly. I see little change as a result of my own actions. I want to do more.

There is no single Quaker model of the right way to live and act.  These Friends are modelling different aspects of the transformation required in individuals and the system to achieve a sustainable, fair and peaceful civilisation. Many of them are involved in building community one way or another. Some have set up and lived in intentional communities. Others have supported marginalised people in developing sustainable livelihoods.

But many spoke about the importance for them of their Quaker meetings as the context for their witness, giving spiritual refreshment and renewal, and emotional, practical and spiritual support.

 Friends also recognise and are glad that many other faith and secular groups are also witnessing in their own ways, and welcome opportunities for partnership when these arise.

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Further Reading and Credits