Culture | R-E-S-P-E-C-T

McGill prof finds economic and environmental solutions in Quaker principles

Out the window of his office in Burnside Hall, Professor Peter Brown can see the world unfolding. It’s a glum January day when I speak with him about his latest book, and unfortunately his outlook on this moment in time is equally bleak. “The current environmental crisis is pretty grim,” Brown admits with characteristic candor.

The book, Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy, presents this diagnosis plainly. “The way that people provide for themselves is in growing conflict with the integrity of Earth’s ecological and social systems,” Brown writes. “The disconnect is so severe that it is now easier to imagine Earth’s life-support systems breaking down than to imagine that our ecologically incoherent and destructive economic system will be significantly altered.”

Brown says that he and co-author Geoff Garver wrote the book “to reach out to people to communicate that there is a way to avoid [large-scale] disaster. But we have to rethink what we’re doing. We have to rethink economics and governance and ultimately the whole Western tradition.”

To begin this process, the authors use the Quaker concept of right relationship to identify the ways in which our economy brutalizes the planet and how we might re-orient ourselves to be more respectful.

“You have a right relationship with someone or something if it is mutually supportive and enhancing. That’s also a relationship you can cultivate with respect to the earth,” Brown says. “We should be respectful, enhancing, and caring for the earth. And we’re not.”

Asking five simple questions (What is the economy for? How does it work? How big is too big? What is fair? How should it be governed?), Brown and Garver offer an inspiring vision of what a moral economy would mean for human beings and other species.

“Once the economy is understood as being embedded in the living, dynamic world that surrounds its purposes become clear: that is, to maintain the integrity, resilience, and beauty of life’s commonwealth,” Brown notes.

In contrast, today’s economic system operates without any acknowledgement of the ecological realities of our finite planet. “The economy has no measure of ‘enough,’” writes Brown. And this wrong relationship has serious consequences for life on this planet.

It seems hopeless in some respects, but I refuse to let Brown off the hook without some sense of how to get from wrong to right.

“When I first came to McGill,” he offers, “I had a conversation with one of the Deans…who didn’t really see why we needed a cross-appointment between the Faculty of Religious Studies and the School of the Environment, because the two didn’t have much to do with each other. I said: “Well, what does the first violin got to do with the orchestra?” If you haven’t got some sort of transcendental commitment, you’re not going to make that kind of turn in your own conduct and the conduct of others that is urgently needed.”

“I think of human beings as amphibious, living both in and out of time,” he says. “We’re sitting here talking, and it’s a certain time of day, but we are also part of the universe that exists on an entirely different timescale. We can participate in it and be agents of its creativity, or we can destroy that manifestation of its grandeur that has evolved here on earth.”

An understanding of our place within a creative universe is a key building block toward moving our economy into right relationship with the earth. Pointing to revered leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, Brown stresses the importance of “seeing things from the point of view of eternity. These people weren’t so imbedded in the present that they couldn’t foresee a different path.”

Brown suggests we have a similar opportunity for change today. With the global economy in flux and widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, we have an opportunity to make a real turn. But whether we will rise up behind those offering a creative vision for the institutional structure of the future, it is harder to say. I ask Brown what gives him hope in a time of such uncertainty. He pauses.

“In 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it seemed highly likely that there might be a disastrous war,” explains Brown. “I was living in New York City as a student at Columbia and we thought that there was a reasonable chance of a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia over Cuba. New York City would be annihilated in that scenario. And it didn’t happen. It never happened. Hasn’t happened yet, anyway. We were at the brink and turned back. I think we’re at the brink now and maybe we can turn back. At least we have to try.”

Peter G. Brown and Geoff Garver’s Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy is published by Berrett-Koehler. It will be launched at Paragraphe Books on February 9 at 6:30 p.m.