Quaker Universalist Conversations

A Moral Economy

 Kenneth and Elise Boulding never felt it necessary to define themselves as Quaker universalists, although without question they were.  Both were mystics and peace activists, students of the human condition in its relationships with nature, and devoted members of the Society of Friends.  As early as the 1950s Kenneth Boulding spoke to the “evolutionary potential of Quakerism.” At the same time he was working with scholars like Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in the advancement of general systems theory.

 Boulding was an economist, but his preoccupation with social ethics and the developing field of natural systems led him to give much of his career to efforts at rescuing the discipline of economics from theoretical constructions that never have existed in the real world.  Those include a free market in the classical sense and a rational “economic man” who bases all decisions on calculations of relative price and immediate advantage — a true forerunner of the fictitious corporate “person.”  Other and darker assumptions that ecological and systems thinking challenges are the discounting of future well-being as against present enjoyment, which is the theoretical basis of interest on debt, and the unlimited capacity of Earth, both as a source of raw materials and a sink for disposal of wastes.  Boulding will be best remembered, however, by Friends as well as others, for launching the unforgettable popular image of “spaceship earth” in an essay written in 1965. 

 Boulding gave his last years to promoting “Quaker Studies on Human Betterment.”  In 2003, just ten years after his death, the Quaker Institute for the Future emerged, building upon the foundation of moral economics that he had laid.  It was envisioned as a sort of Quaker think tank.  A prospectus written by Keith Helmuth was circulated at the Friends General Conference gathering in 2003, a working group convened a month later, and in 2004 the QIF was incorporated as a nonprofit charitable organization in the state of California.

 Since 2005 its activities have included newsletters, summer research seminars, “circles of discernment” focused on particular topics and leading to related publications, and, most importantly, the Moral Economy Project. This seeks new ways of making the economy as a whole conform to the finite boundaries of the earth’s biosphere.  Its main outcome thus far has been a book entitled Right Relationship:  Building a Whole Earth Economy (Barrett-Koehler, 2009).  As might be expected from such a source, it was a group enterprise; five authors are listed.  It is now in its second printing.

 The book has been followed by a series of pamphlets, the latest of which appeared this year under the provocative title How on Earth Do We Live Now? The authors respond with another question:  “Is Earth a subset of the human economy or is the human economy a subset of the biosphere?”  The answer involves two very different views of reality.  For those who accept the Anthropic Principle, which holds that humankind is central to the meaning of all existence, the problem is to manage the economic system in a way that maximizes human development yet preserves the Earth which gives us life.  For deep ecologists, who see the human species as part of a larger whole or a stage in the evolution of life, the way is to discern the rules of nature and shape society in a manner that conforms to them. 

 To reconcile these two positions and create a “bridge to the future,” the authors suggest redefining property, and “moving key resources essential to supporting life out of the marketplace.”  The key elements to be held in common belong to two domains:  “the cultural arrangements of knowledge and skills that support human communities, and the structures and processes of Earth’s life support systems.”

 This new pamphlet, the ongoing discussion it points to, and Keith Helmuth, one of its principal authors, were together a powerful presence at the 2011 FGC gathering.  The discussion included the overlapping missions of the QIF and Quaker Earthcare Witness and ways in which each might support the other.  As a representative of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, I took part, seeing connections with QUF and also with the Quaker interfaith movement.  As the work of Kenneth Boulding attests, those connections go deep into the Quaker past.  But now a crisis has been reached.  Our spiritual energies as well as our practical efforts must be turned to the universal task of devising a moral economy and preventing destruction of the earth and its many species of life.


Rhoda, Does the QIF document advocate for globalization and confiscation of selected resources?
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