A couple of years ago at Pacific Yearly Meeting I stood up in the plenary session to ask if driving the Toyota Prius was all Quakers had to offer as a witness against oil wars. I was roundly criticized afterwards for disrespectin’ what was for some a significant lifestyle choice that grew out of deeply held beliefs. In other words, I was told that a Prius with an FCNL bumper sticker reading “WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER” actually is, seemingly, a significant proportion what Quakers have to offer as our witness against oil wars, along with writing letters to our representatives, and holding candlelight vigils.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I love the Toyota Prius. I love that they tested it for years in vehicle fleets in Japan before they brought it to the U.S., so that if there were a problem it wouldn’t sour the American public on alternative vehicle technology forever. (I always love it when people understand that Murphy’s Law, like gravity, is a fundamental premise of how the world works east of Eden, not a quaint aphorism.) I love that Toyota took a chance on making the car a little unique looking on the inside and the outside. I love that a bunch of Hollywood progressives who can afford cars many times more expensive are driving them. I love that they sold out the first year, and that most of them sold on the Left Coast (Natch!). I love that everyone thinks that the hybrid technology is a revolutionary new concept even though diesel locomotives have been made that way since there was diesel locomotives. I actually love that you can feel and hear the road a little when you are in one.
Some of my best friends drive Priuses. (Prii? Hippopotamuses is more fun than Hippopotami…) Hello, Elaine, Kirsten, Steve, Marilee, Shan, Hollister et al! I was in the parking lot at Santa Cruz Meeting a while ago and almost a half of the lot was Prii, or the Honda Civic hybrid. (The Prius is vastly superior to the Honda hybrid, by the way. Oh, not technologically, but the Prius LOOKS like a hybrid, while Honda looks like every other Civic on the road except for a small decal. So, you don’t get the instant credibility that you get with the Prius.)
HOWEVER, over in the corner of the parking lot was a bicycle rack, where a beat and battered Bridgestone XO-3 was locked up securely. With fenders, front and rear racks, lights, and a single pannier hung jauntily on the traffic side, the battered eggplant (yum!) paint lent it the effortless air of authenticity. I know a Philadelphia Friend who rides buses and bikes right through the winter there as part of her witness against The Machine. There is a sweet little Univega Viva Sport in Las Vegas that puts in more miles than the Prius it shares carport space with some weeks, often with a child’s Tag-Along half bicycle clamped on. My dad still cycles a lot, and Elizabeth rides her bike to seminary. Chris and Carin and little Issa are car free, and Steven won’t even ride in other people’s private automobiles. My sister rides to work when it’s not snowing in Vermont, and Violet’s bike has a jive basket. Melody and Coleman ride recycled bicycles to town on Saturdays to do their errands, and Jen commutes to work on her sleek road bike, coming home at 2 a.m. at any time of year!
My neighbor, elder and friend at Sierra Friends Center, Dorothy, is in the John Woolman vein; she thinks that bicycles may be too hifalutin’, and occasionally walks the 14 miles roundtrip to town. After years of living these seven miles from town, I finally measured the distance with my legs, using that oldest form of transport, walking. Afterwards, I related to that distance totally differently, whether cycling or riding in the biodiesel truck (since sold—I don’t own a car anymore!).
The Prius still burns petroleum. It still relies on our continued paving of the planet. It reinforces/represents the imbalance of wealth. It is very resource intensive, and contains many toxic materials that are difficult to recycle. It perpetuates the illusion that the modern pace of life is sustainable, desirable, inevitable. It kills the same amount of wildlife as any other car its size (and it is much heavier than it looks due to batteries). In casual systems parlance, it is a ‘tweak’ and not a paradigm shift. It perpetuates the status quo, rather than controverting it.
The bicycle, on the other hand, is an honest conveyance, using only the energy available to it now, not ancient carbon mined from the bowels of the earth. It encourages mindfulness, and strengthens the body. It slows us down to the speed of life. It is a social mode of transport, rather than an isolating one. Its emissions are the smell of sweat and the sound of ratcheting gears. When we have just distribution of world resources, bicycles will be affordable for everyone and for the biosphere. Bicycles are elegant, simple, beautiful.
I understand, of course, that not everyone can ride a bike. My friend Shirley loved to watch her boys, Shendo and Sebastian, riding, but she had cerebral palsy and a great big, expensive electric wheelchair to get her around. (Rest in Peace, Shirley, and thanks for all your love and lessons.) All who own cars can explain why life is not possible without them—“I have to get from here to there because it’s my job, or relationship, or whatever, and there’s really no other way to do it because the bus doesn’t go there, and it’s expensive, and someone yelled at me on the ferry once, and I get cold at the light rail station, and my kids have to go to ballet, etc.” Perhaps you really are stuck. Perhaps you haven’t looked deeply enough of what is being asked of you. Certainly we need a better transportation infrastructure if we are all going to be car free (which we are). Still, I am inspired by the early adopters. The bell curve may not have caught up to you yet, but there are some out there unpaving the way.
John Punshon’s remark is still irking me. He called me out in front of the FGC plenary a few years back (Normal, Illinois), and said; “I can see that you are a young man who hungers and thirsts after righteousness.” I think that the subtext of the remark had a “self” in it before the word “righteousness,” but I could just be getting defensive. I do hunger and thirst after righteousness, it’s true, but not because I expect to be judged by a wrathful and jealous deity when I die. I don’t have any coherent sense of an afterlife, let alone one with different options (Up vs. Down).*
Perhaps instead of the button-pushing word “Righteousness,” I should go with the more Quaker-sounding “Integrity.” That more perfectly expresses my sentiment anyway. I am one who hungers and thirsts after integrity. That sounds right. The challenge is that the society I live in seems to utterly preclude the possibility of living a virtuous life; one of integrity.
Meister Eckhart wrote: “there are plenty to follow our Lord half-way, but not the
Other half. They will give up possessions, friends, and honors, but it touches them too closely to disown themselves.”
I offended one dear Friend recently who has worked very hard in the area of social reform with various Quaker organizations for decades. I asserted that I don’t know many Friends who are willing to give up “possessions, friends, and honors,” let alone “disowning themselves.” She knows many who are harassed by airport security because of their political work. These are people who could earn more in the private sector than they do in the NGO’s they work for. These people have made real sacrifices to live their Truth. I was more or less called a “whippersnapper,” and certainly took to heart her observation that I haven’t exactly set the world on fire myself.
Still, I feel that the total surrender that Meister Eckhart speaks of is all too rare in the world today, and in the Society of Friends. Yet, I am increasingly convinced that it is essential to our finding the spiritual groundedness and joyful non-attachment that will be necessary to remake our world from the earth up.
The text where Jesus exhorts us to “forsake thy mother and father and go with me” is not so much about family relations as it is a way of illustrating that even this relationship, which we have always had, which society holds up, which we believe we are entitled to, and which we assume God wants us to maintain, must be offered up, if required of us, as a testament to our devotion and to free us to follow our leadings. We are enjoined to withhold nothing from God. How then, will we justify the inability to surrender our automobiles?
It is all right for some to have a facile, plastic, relationship to means and ends. I suppose that some of that is inevitable, and it is good to have it as part of the dialogue about modern ethics. Still, if there is a panel on different religion’s approach to war, I also hope that someone at the table will cut through all the nonsense about “Just War” and point out a clear pacifist principle. In the same way, in the pantheon of how different religions deal with sin, I am glad that Quakers have stood for the notion that sin is not inevitable, and not just because sin doesn’t really exist. (Sin here meaning, “the missing of the mark” rather than some indelible form of irredeemable evil.)
I am also not claiming personal righteousness—if I had that, I wouldn’t hunger and thirst after it, right? It is not an accident that this blog is called Confessions of an EarthQuaker. Sometimes all I have to offer in my ministry is my own confession of broken heartedness and culpability. In this day and age, living according to any coherent ethics of compassion is a fearsome challenge. How will we live in a way that does not exploit people, carry the seeds of war, or destroy the biosphere? For myself, I sleep in a room heated by wood backed up by propane, turn off my coal-powered alarm clock (it runs on electricity, of course, but the electricity comes from coal), pull on my industrial cotton broadfall pants, light the propane-powered stove to heat the water for my coffee which has traveled from Sumatra to be on my shelf, and then wander into the bathroom to contaminate 1.6 gallons of what previously was potable water. Before I am fully awake, I have participated in the exploitation of coffee farmers, the destruction of the biosphere through pollution of water and carbon emissions, and I have nurtured the seeds of war that makes my lifestyle, modest though it may be by U.S. standards, possible. (The big three of ecological footprint are housing, transport, and diet. My diet is as big a footprint as my transportation.)
Perhaps what I can say here is part of my learning at Pendle Hill. Perhaps I should talk about my feelings. We do that a lot around here. When I think about the state of the world, and the way in which our global north lifestyles contribute to its continued decline, I feel sad, sick, scared, and mad as hell. When I see people seeking alternatives, experimenting, sharing their discoveries, and living their truth, I feel inspired, joyful, hopeful and loving towards those brave souls. In short, bicycles make me happy. Perhaps that’s all I should have said in the first place.
*My theory of afterlife is called the Cosmic Compost Pile. Since we know that in physics and in natural systems there is no beginning and no end, only cycles and processes, it doesn’t make sense that any part of me would just cease to be when I die. I figure that the Spirit, like the body, is subjected to radical entropy, but that the resultant material is enriched, purified, and ready to be absorbed into whole new cycles of life. It is possible that some lives are like an apple core in the compost pile, which breaks down rapidly, and others are more like an avocado pit, their energy breaking down more slowly, but it all goes around again. Of course, I can’t prove it, and I have never been shown that this is true by a mystical experience. I just like it as a plausible, prosaic, and nonviolent notion of afterlife. In the true Quaker tradition, I actually think that our eschatology tells us that the Kin-dom is at hand, and we are living in Paradise now.