The Religious Society of Friends, known popularly as “Quakers,” has practiced pacifism and economic simplicity for 350 years. Quakers have traditionally tried to avoid dogma, which they believe would alienate them from other faiths. They want to connect with other people, spiritually, and so they express their beliefs in the humblest manner and the most general vocabulary possible.
Instead of a creed, the Quakers rely on “queries,” questions that shape their daily behavior without blocking out people who don’t share all their beliefs. Quaker queries include things like, “Is your home clean enough that you feel comfortable offering hospitality to anyone who might stop by?” “Do you strive to be truthful at all times?” Or, “Do you seek employment consistent with your beliefs and in service to society?”[i] The answers to these queries shape the Quaker vision of a spiritual way of life. The individual Quaker’s answer to any particular query is almost never an unqualified “yes,” because the questions describe goals to be strived for. The Quaker queries chart a path toward an ideal.
I’m offering four very simple, very general queries as criteria that I hope will help you shape your own personal enterprises and lead you toward a new perspective on our future as a species. Imagine using these criteria to guide your plans for your yard, your Sunday-school class, your farm, your neighborhood or your business. Imagine the ways in which the criteria might shape your efforts. Imagine the ways in which those efforts might change the outcomes.
If we ask the right questions, they could guide us down a new path so that we arrive at a better place, a place from where we can hopefully see the path to a better future.
Is It Beautiful?
Does It Create Abundance?
Is It Fair?
Is It Contagious?
Is It Beautiful?
Beauty should be a primary ingredient of every human endeavor.
Beauty is a critical component of your vision for your home, your business or anything else you care about. Why would we envision a human future without beauty? If we did, would anyone want to go there?
The Sydney Opera House resonates with its setting on the coast of eastern Australia by evoking the beauty of the Chambered Nautilus, a Pacific Ocean cephalopod whose shells are exquisitely beautiful. The opera house covers 4.5 acres with concrete, plywood and glass. It is difficult to heat and cool. Built before the idea of “green design” was conceived, it’s not energy-efficient. The building is not, explicitly, a tribute to nature. Yet it metaphorically places humankind—opera, ballet, great theater—in nature. It reminds human beings throughout the world of the beauty and vulnerability of the Pacific Ocean and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
The Sydney Opera House makes a compelling statement for conserving natural resources without any literal reference to conservation.
Many of the greatest achievements in conservation during the 19th and 20th centuries were motivated by beauty. The National Parks of the United States–from Acadia in Maine to Yosemite in California–were chosen for their beauty. Artists disseminated that beauty. How many of us first encountered Yosemite through the lens of the photographer Ansel Adams? Or first saw Yellowstone in the brush strokes of the painter Albert Bierstadt?
If art reflects the human mind, if beauty represents aspiration, then beauty must be a part of our vision for the future.
Does It Create Abundance?
The human sense of wellness depends on surpluses. People need to feel that they will have at least a little more than they need, and if possible most of us would like to have the potential for achieving slightly more than we desire. The possibility of the occasional jackpot stimulates the mind. Efficiency alone doesn’t complete our happiness equation. A meal may be filling if it supplies the required calories but it is only abundant only if it exceeds our desires for flavor and nutrition. A feast may even require good conversation to be part of the experience if it is to be defined as a truly abundant feast.
The definition of abundance includes at least three variables we may be able to control.
The first and most obvious is the supply of resources. Can our society create more food? Better, cheaper housing? Faster, more efficient transportation? Efficiency is the simplest ingredient in any recipe for abundance. If a system can make more with less, then resources are more abundant–both the raw materials and the final products. Anyone who wants to create abundance must care about efficiency. Historically, civilization has created abundant resources for humanity–food, shelter and transportation–by improving efficiency through the use of new technology. When one thinks about abundance, we generally think about improved technology that gives us access to expanded resources: industrial agriculture, central heating, modern medicine, automobiles and airplanes.
The second variable under human control is the demand for resources. Individuals can live more frugally and efficiently. How much of your driving is unnecessary? How often do you take more food than you can eat? Should we think about stabilizing or decreasing the human population of the planet? We have powerful tools for controlling our demand for resources, as well as the supply of resources, and we can have an equivalent impact on either end of the equation.
The third variable is less concrete but equally profound. Human beings can control their desires.
And by controlling our desires, we can reduce the demands we place on the planet.
In his book, Voluntary Simplicity[ii], Duane Elgin explores, in detail, the benefits of managing desires. Jesus of Nazareth, Gautama Buddha, the Prophet Muhammad, Aristotle, Plato, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Buber, Joseph Campbell, Meister Eckhart, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elise Boulding, Buckminster Fuller, Soren Kierkegaard, Lao-Tzu, Linda Breen Pierce, Charles Mingus, Pablo Picasso, Thomas Aquinas, Henry David Thoreau and Frank Lloyd Wright are all referenced in support of his argument: By managing our desires human beings can conserve natural resources, improve the human condition and enhance their enjoyment of life.
Elgin distinguishes between “ascetic simplicity,”–ritualistic deprivation–and “aesthetic simplicity,” a celebration of simple pleasures. He advocates a new aesthetic that exalts the humble: smaller houses, common clothes and self-reliance.
When my wife and I were raising our children we heard a lot of parental chatter about “quality time.” The idea was that, since we were so busy, we should spend our few hours with our children reading books and playing intellectually stimulating games. That way, we could be great parents even if we worked 50-hour weeks and exercised two hours a day.
In our experience, quality time was a fraud. Although some family activities were clearly superior to others, what really counted, the thing that deepened our relationships, was “quantity time,” long uneventful hours in the car or on a walk or even washing up after dinner.
Consider the things you love in the world. Now consider how many of them were created from abundance. Consider whether you could appreciate them if you had no extra time, no extra money or only enough food to survive.
Abundance is not a luxury. Abundance is necessary to health and wellbeing. We need time to rest. We need a few extra vitamins and nutritious calories to stave off infection. We need quiet, reflective moments when we’re not required to be productive.
In business, capital is the medium of abundance. Many enterprises start on a shoestring. The entrepreneur figures a way, by hook or by crook, to get up and running. For the business to thrive, however, nearly every entrepreneur eventually requires capital. Capital is “extra” money generated somewhere in the economic system and then made available for investment. Some group or individual, somewhere, must have built up enough wealth so that they are willing to risk part of it on the entrepreneur’s initiative.
If no business or individual generates surpluses then there is no capital available to risk. Creativity dries up. Entrepreneurial spirit dies out. Abundance is a critical element in our economic and financial systems.
The same might be said for all human enterprises, whether they involve money or not. In contemporary society we often measure value with money, but abundance can be measured in any unit of value. We need surpluses to be creative. And we need to be creative to survive. If we have only enough arable land to support ourselves, then we can’t experiment with new techniques or innovative crops. If our employers provide us with only the resources necessary to attend to today’s business, then our enterprise will be blindsided by tomorrow’s challenges. We need extra time, space and money to brainstorm, to innovate, to invent. Abundance is necessary.
Few achievements in the history of our species have been accomplished in the absence of abundance. Science, technology, literature and art spring only from societies in which the surpluses enable some people to live reflective, inventive lives free of the daily necessity of securing adequate food, water and shelter.
Certainly busy, hungry people have invented remarkable things out of necessity. The conversation contained in this book has, in fact, been motivated by my own sense of urgency. I believe we need to change our perspective soon. I believe we’re up against a deadline. But the time it takes to write a book, to invent a new crop, to conceive of any new piece of technology is our most precious resource, and it is symptomatic of abundance. Perhaps the recipe for innovation could be described as the combination of a sense of urgency with the resources necessary to address the problem.
If we train our ingenuity solely on efficiency, we stunt our potential. A lot of people are promoting conservation and efficiency as though they provide some kind of solution to our resource limitations. They are squandering valuable time and energy by reacting to the symptoms of habitat damage rather than addressing its root causes. In light of the growing human population, conservation is only a stopgap.
The most chilling implication of a mania for efficiency is the prospect of zero-sum societies. A zero-sum environment is one in which no new resources are available. An individual can only expand his or her resources at the expense of another individual. Zero-sum environments utilize resources very efficiently, because they are so scarce. However, since an individual can only gain if another individual loses, they also tend to reward ruthless behavior. You may have worked in a zero-sum professional environment, or known someone who has. It can be a very unpleasant experience. Countries where resources are strained approximate zero-sum environments. Because there’s no practical way of increasing the society’s prosperity through cooperative efforts, people turn to various forms of corruption or even violence as tactics for taking resources from their fellow citizens. It is, tragically, a logical choice.
In their purest philosophical essences both conservation and hyper-efficiency lead to the same dreary destination, a world that has maximized its human population at the expense of beauty and creativity. We need space and capital to realize our potential as a species. We should plan for abundance.
Is It Fair?
Fairness is among the most subjective of standards. Its definition changes from one place to another and from one moment to the next. It’s a fluid and powerful concept. The group defines fairness. It’s the product of consensus.
Justice is sometimes confused with fairness. Justice is not fluid. Justice forms the foundation of legal systems. It is represented by a rigid, written code that supports the activities of our courts and prisons.
The international economic systems that make some people rich and some people poor based merely on the fact of where they were born are, in some formal sense, just. They are legal. But are they fair?
Fairness is defined in the moment. When someone feels a rule has been broken, at work or in school or on the ball field, it often precipitates a conflict. The rules are interpreted by one side, then the other. People argue. When a person appeals for fairness, on the other hand, it implies the opportunity for a negotiation. We search for a solution that restores the group’s sense of fairness. That process of consensus-building decides, case by case, whether something is fair or not.
A sense of fairness is necessary for an enterprise to harness joint efforts among diverse people. North American sustainable-forestry practices, although good as far as they go, can’t be fairly applied in Brazil until Brazil’s timberlands are no longer needed for grazing and crops. So long as Brazilian farmers depend on deforestation for their survival we can’t, in fairness, call for a halt to deforestation in the Amazon. It’s difficult for conservation organizations funded by wealthy Westerners to protect Africa’s mountain gorillas if their human neighbors in central Africa perceive that the gorillas have a higher standard of living than the local villager’s.
Individuals are willing to make a personal sacrifice for the greater good if, and only if, they feel that the greater good includes their group. If any influential society on any part of the globe feels that the world’s power institutions are unfair, then we won’t be able to effectively address our global problems. In Guatemala, a country divided by a 36-year civil war and isolated from the growing economies of surrounding countries, huge tracts of rain forest are being burned to provide new ranchland, squatters have occupied the former Maya Biosphere Reserve and drug traffickers rule much of the countryside.[iii] Habitat preservation is not a high priority in Guatemala right now, and it won’t be until the Guatemalan people are safer and better fed.
As individuals, we can’t be expected to do the right thing unless doing the right thing has positive implications for our individual lives or our children’s lives. Bluntly, how can we expect poor people to stop cutting down trees for firewood while the affluent drive 5,000-pound automobiles dozens of miles a day just for fun?
Global fairness is, obviously, a cumbersome project. It can only be assembled from fairness exercised in billions of transactions around the world across the decades. But we can begin cultivating a sense of fairness by imposing fairness as a standard in our own homes, our churches, our schools, our towns, our governments and our businesses. We can shop for products that have been created with a sense of fairness, wherever they are manufactured. We can openly discuss the notion of fairness with our leaders, at work and in government. Maybe we can set a groundwork on which a global sense of fairness might be built.
Is It Contagious?
Anyone can initiate small positive changes by creating beautiful things and enterprises that foster abundance, and by focusing on fairness in their daily affairs.
To create major change, however, we need ideas that are contagious.
In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell demonstrates that, “Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.”[iv] Gladwell compares HIV and a recent fashion craze for Hush Puppies shoes. When a virus–or a shoe–catches on it can spread across the globe almost instantaneously.
Footwear might seem like a frivolous example but fashion provides us with an excellent model for the creation of contagious ideas. Fashion is an ideal technical example of how one develops a collective human vision. From year to year, human beings around the world collectively alter their vision of beauty. Millions of individuals suddenly subscribe to a new idea and implement it in their own lives, sometimes at great expense. The mavens of haute couture are global experts in the art of forming–and reforming–collective vision.
Our ideas, if they are to be effective, should be epidemically contagious like a new style of blue jeans or a new way of wearing classic products like Hush Puppies or Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars.
If our concepts are beautiful and fair, if they create abundance, then they have an excellent chance of achieving contagiousness, especially if we work at making them contagious.
I used to go backpacking with a friend who drilled holes in his toothbrush handle to decrease its weight. With his goose-down sleeping bag, dehydrated food and plastic utensils, he could tell you within an ounce exactly what his pack weighed. His obsession was entertaining, at first. The conversation was interesting for an hour or two. Then it became tedious. Another friend loved campfire-grilled steaks and would hit the trail with 10 or 15 pounds of beef in his backpack. Sometimes he brought fresh potatoes, too, and some whiskey. We relished the smell of cooking meat in the mountain air. He strapped an old guitar to the top of his pack.
For a camping companion, I preferred the steak-and-whiskey friend. He helped me appreciate nature; both the natural world and my human nature.
We environmentalists have drilled a lot of metaphorical toothbrushes over the years. Conservation invites a fundamentalist approach to sustainability. Too many environmental commandments begin “Thou shalt not…” Our negativity has prevented our ideas from catching on. Conservation, as an ethic, is not particularly contagious. So even when we’ve been right, we have not inspired action.
If we want to involve people in the process of forming a collective vision, we need a different approach.
We will not engage the great engines of human creativity with a vision of pure frugality.
We need to plan for beauty and abundance.
[ii] Duane Elgin. Voluntary Simplicity. Second Revised Edition. HarperCollins, New York. 2010. ISBN 978-0-06-177926-8.
[iii] Blake Schmidt. Ranchers and Drug Barons Threaten Rain Forest. The New York Times. July 17, 2010.
[iv] Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Little, Brown and Company, March 2000. First Back Bay paperback edition, January 2002, Page 7.