Quaker Eco-Justice Strategy: Equality and the Experiment of the Earth Quaker Action Team

January-February 2012
By George Lakey
Quaker Earthcare Witness

Any great change must expect opposition because it shakes the very foundation of privilege.

What if it turned out that a time-honored Friends testimony, a success story in northwestern Europe, and an experiment by contemporary eco-justice Quakers, all turned out to be in alignment?

In the midst of the painfully hierarchical 17th century, Friends acted out their vision of social equality. In the 20th century Norwegians built equality into their national version of a “holy experiment.” And now, the Earth Quaker Action Team is asserting bold connections between equality and the needs of the planet. Those three moments in time add up to encouragement and a fresh angle on strategy.

The encouragement, ironically, starts with confronting the reality of social class. What I’ve found in years of doing diversity workshops with Friends is that the challenges brought by the testimony of equality bring us both resistance and relief. Resistance? Because we’ve all been socialized into oppressive patterns, and that’s our comfort zone. Relief? Because part of us always knows that those patterns are wrong, and we walk a bit taller when we’re tackling instead of avoiding the work.

When I think back to how challenged I was by the black freedom movement, then the women’s movement, and then the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transexual (LGBT) movement (even though I’m gay), I remember both my resistance and relief. 

At the beginning of a workshop on social class one Friend said, “Surely we’ve had enough of dealing with privilege! Who wants to tackle yet another way that inequality messes us up?”

A belly laugh from other Friends greeted the statement. One said, “But maybe we can learn something from what we’ve already tackled!”

When I read about Friends refusing to doff their hats to their “superiors,” or use titles, or use the pronouns that the authorities and the rich demanded, I’m grateful for that Quaker clarity. They knew that class is a biggie. Actually, they might be surprised at our attempt to maintain a culture of silence about it.

Maybe we should make billionaire Warren E. Buffett an honorary Friend for his breaking through the silence in such a plain-spoken way. He found that he paid a lower percentage of his income in taxes than the secretaries and clerks in his office.  “There’s class warfare, all right,” Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”1

At the 2011 Friends General Conference Gathering over eighty Friends from around the country were bursting with stories about how the rich are winning in their states—not just in Wisconsin, although Madison Friends might have bigger bruises than some.

Not all rich people actively support policies that hurt the rest of us. Bill Gates’ dad makes public statements asking to be taxed more and, hopefully, there are wealthy Quakers who are adding their names to the list being compiled by Responsible Wealth/United for a Fair Economy.2

Nevertheless, Buffett does know his class better than I do. Eco-justice organizers need to know too, because as Ed Dreby contends, dealing with climate change will require very great economic change. The quote above from Lucretia Mott puts these two realities together.

As the privileged have become more savvy about what climate change really implies, their opposition has become much more aggressive. Even our ecological President (pragmatist that he is) left climate change out of the State of the Union Speech in 2011.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce (controlled by Warren Buffett’s class) opposes measures that would increase environmental sustainability, provide good universal health care, keep middle class families in the cities, give working class families a chance, and provide full employment. Only a class analysis can predict the stands the Chamber takes.

The Chamber spent more on the 2010 election than the Republican and Democratic National Committees combined. The result is that the already staggering gap in the U.S. between the rich and the poor is steadily increasing, which gets the testimonies section of the “Quaker Meter” flashing more insistently than an ambulance light.

Vision: Good news from Norway on the equality front

People of faith are not required to have assurance of success before embarking on a great task. The early Friends who tackled the Puritan theocracy of colonial Massachusetts certainly didn’t have any! Still, as someone who has pursued some lost causes in my time, I do cheer up when I learn that someone, somewhere, has made a gain.

Even after Norwegian Quakers left their country for more hospitable lands, Norway still had some people who had a vision of equality. At the beginning of the twentieth century their country was terribly poor—a majority lived in slums and rural poverty. Only three percent of Norway could grow food; the climate was rough; it had few natural resources; and its population of three million gave it a very small internal market. The main ways Norway learned to earn income—fishing, lumbering, using its water power to refine aluminum, building and operating merchant ships—left it at the mercy of global market forces like the rise and fall of the price of wood.

Norway’s homogeneity (mostly white Lutherans) reduced the creativity that would be more available in a culturally diverse nation. Norway had a small group of very rich owners and a fairly small middle class; most Norwegians were workers and farmers. The income difference between the rich and the poor was dramatic. A vision of equality, however, lived.

The workers, with allies, mobilized a large-scale nonviolent struggle to change the class situation. Seven decades later (the 1970s, before Norway’s oil-drilling in the North Sea), Norway had virtually eliminated poverty, put everyone into decent housing, provided good free health care for all, provided free university education, created a flourishing infrastructure despite the ice and snow, provided for everyone’s decent retirement, created a full employment economy, and other achievements too numerous to mention here.

They did this even though they suffered a devastating war with Germany and an occupation that set them back economically, a time when the U.S. economy prospered.Now, in comparison with the U.S., Norway has higher productivity and is running ahead of its Kyoto climate change agreements. It is also one of the highest per capita contributors to development in the Global South and support for the UN.

How did the Norwegians do this? They went ahead and nonviolently fought the class war. The people won, put the economic elite out of political power, and took control of the direction of the economy.

Making the power shift wasn’t easy; when the privileged called out the troops, people got hurt and lives were lost. However, Norwegian workers didn’t allow their fear to get the best of them; they used their nonviolent weapons of strikes, boycotts and protests to end the political domination of the super-rich. When the working class with its allies took charge, Norway was able to make a national decision to abolish poverty and move beyond a society of dramatic class difference.3

Norwegian economists then worked mainly for the working class instead of the super-rich, and found that overcoming poverty is not rocket science. The dozens of concrete economic tools they used to move toward equality are available.4 The Swedes and Danes also confronted their super-rich and took similar strides toward equality. They created more equality and well-being than the U.S. without the lubrication of North Sea oil. All three countries in the mid-twentieth century freed themselves to pursue the common good by overcoming the resistance of Lucretia Mott’s “privileged.” Based on track record, overcoming is the only way it can be done.

In the 1970s, Norway faced the environmental challenge and gave leadership in the United Nations to wake up the rest of the world to climate change. The freedom they had to do that was no accident; they had pushed the super-rich out of power so the privileged couldn’t prevent Norway from addressing a critical issue on the horizon, as they persistently do in the U.S.

Norway hasn’t become a utopia. Breivik’s murderous attack on the Labor Party in July 2011 reflects residual religious/racial intolerance that still lives in the Norwegian right wing. In the 1980s the neo-liberalism of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher became attractive enough for the Norwegian Conservatives to win power. The Conservatives de-regulated and allowed a financial bubble that drove Norway toward the cliff. Labor regained power, seized the banks that were most responsible for the disaster, fired the senior management, made sure stockholders couldn’t benefit, and refused to bail out other banks. The result: while European and U.S. giants were reeling in 2007-08, the Norwegian financial sector was safe, because it had been cleansed by the democratic wisdom, hard-won from Norway’s brief flirtation with neo-liberalism.5

Most Norwegians believe that the job of an economy is to create the experience of abundance for all; economics in the U.S. is called “the dismal science,” because it is all about scarcity, a spiritual violation if there ever was one.

A few years ago the leadership of the city of Oslo became concerned about a trend of increasing car purchases, with attendant traffic, emissions, carbon footprint, etc. Their solution was to dramatically lower public transportation fares and increase service. The result was a decrease in car ownership and traffic! Even though Norway is one of the nations least threatened by climate change in the world, it has been an environmental leader. That’s because it has freed itself from domination by the economic elite that elsewhere misleads and is devoted to inequality.