The 2011 Swarthmore Lecture by Pam Lunn , reviewed by Jez Smith.
Costing not less than everything: sustainability and spirituality in challenging times, the Swarthmore Lecture 2011.
“The task may appear impossible
We must take the first step.”
Australia Yearly Meeting epistle 2011, paraphrasing Pablo Casals.
When hundreds or thousands of Quakers gather for their Yearly Meetings or other events, the current fashion is to drift into woe. We’re aware of our responsibility to the world, but the task seem insurmountable. We cry out in pain and confusion.
It doesn’t have to be like this. God’s people – the world’s people – have faced great challenges before and will face great challenges again. But it is easy to forget, when amid the difficulty, that God is still there with you.
So we need reminders about who we are and how we can move from here. And the most timely reminder is the 2011 Swarthmore Lecture, Costing not less than everything: sustainability and spirituality in challenging times by Pam Lunn.
Pam begins the lecture with a sense of awe – the view of the Earth as witnessed by astronauts as they travelled through space in the mid-twentieth century. You know, as you look around you now, it’s incredible isn’t it? We’re a tiny part of this great big rock that is hurtling through space at great speed. Just now I find it amazing that we haven’t fallen off.
The sense of awe that Pam brings stays throughout the book. Just as the planet is going places, albeit places we’ve probably been before (weren’t we here about a year ago?), we as Quakers are going places too. And there’s great news in this lecture. We are, and continue to be, a community.
Part of the challenge of getting to our destination is that we don’t really know exactly where we’re going and we don’t really know precisely how we’ll get there. Like the excitable child we keep asking “are we nearly there yet?” Unfortunately, too many of us, when we don’t receive a positive reply, want to give up and we share our negativity around liberally.
But even if we’re willing to stick with the journey there are other factors at play. Pam writes: “the greatest barrier to making effective changes in our behaviour towards a more sustainable way of living is force of habit – the extraordinary proportion of our lives that are run by our autopilot.”
A solution, Pam says, is practice. Then practise, practise, practise. Three kinds, to make it your custom, to rehearse or repeat and like the Budhist way where meditation and mindfulness are described as “practice”, apparently also encompassing the first two.
There’s another way. A couple of years ago I was at a Young Friends General Meeting in Brighton and local Friend Ben W. ran a workshop on sustainability and Quaker testimonies. He began by encouraging participants to thing about climate change and all the negativity that comes with it. Woe and despair gushed forth. When we were about done, Ben asked us to think of the Quaker testimonies and to talk about all the positives that we could associate with them. We did so and were all fired up. The Light was shining bright then, it really was a fire. So, said Ben, now tell me how you’ll apply those testimonies to the challenge of climate change. And the participants who left that room were all ready to go out there and be the change that they wanted to see in the world.
This Swarthmore Lecture is, in a way, a long form version of Ben’s workshop, but with less emphasis on the woe and more about building us up. This isn’t a map or a manual to find the answers we’re all looking for, but it is a jolly good guide.
Pam has form in this area. For some time she has been a tutor at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and with colleagues has pioneered the “Good Lives” courses, all about how we ourselves get on with our lives in the face of making sustainable and spiritual change.
There’s a great model in Pam’s lecture, an iterative circle for dealing with change. It has three questions in the circle asking simply “What?”, “So what?” and “Now what?”
In response to “Now what?” Pam rightly says that it is not for her alone to answer the question, but for the community to discover together. Her first pointer is towards spiritual discipline. Remember God? We don’t have to do this alone. It is practice again. And it is about taking the ego away from centre stage. When done faithfully and over time, we can become more attuned to the the promptings of the Spirit, says Pam.
Secondly we need to be community and be accountable to one another. Some of our individual freedoms must be relinquished, Pam says, but we won’t recognise the benefits until we take the steps. I wish that Pam had taken more space in the book to explore this point, but this will have to do for now.
Third, the community needs a common task. But what is it asks Pam. She suggests carbon descent, so that we might become low carbon communities.
To be fair, this is a hard place to be, especially for one individual who believes that it is the community who must decide and act. It is not easy being a prophet or a lecturer and Pam has done a great job to bring us to the point where we see that it is the community who must get together from hereon in.
There’s a great glossary in here and terms that are in the glossary are in bold in the text at first mention to aid learning about what they mean. There are notes, further resources and, crucially, a study guide. Pam may be telling us that the community has to work it out, but she’s still doing her best to give us the tools to get somewhere meaningful with this.
Towards the end of the book there’s a photograph of The Pale Blue Dot, Planet Earth, viewed across an expanse of space – approximately four billion miles. This is it, what we’re all about. In the grand scheme of things we’re not it. But in the here and now and with a nod to the future, we are all we’ve got.
Costing not less than everything: sustainability and spirituality in challenging times by Pam Lunn is the 2011 Swarthmore Lecture. It is available from Quaker Books.