Gather the light of ecological guidance: one Quaker's perspective

  • Keith Helmuth hikes with his grandson. (Brendan Helmuth)
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Preview of a story in our print-only Ecology 2017 special section.

Keith Helmuth has had reason to cry over the ecological landscape of Earth, his common home, these last 70-plus years. From the window of a jetliner on a clear, moonlit night, Helmuth spied the vast expanse of the Amazon watershed, where down below the scale of the destruction of clear-cut rain forest was “stunning,” he recalled.

It was not just the clear-cutting of one of the largest forest tracks in Brazil and on Earth that was upsetting, but the fires large and small, ignited to clear the forest floor, releasing large quantities of carbon from long-term storage into the atmosphere. Helmuth’s window seat on that January 2004 flight offered him an aerial view of the storm of progress — firestorms burning up the rain forest to prepare it for the beef industry and soybean business that have altered the Amazon landscape and culture, if not the prospects of the human future.

Helmuth, a Quaker, is an economic development activist. For more than half a century, this Earth scholar — a retired farmer, bookstore manager and college teacher — has been on a quest to understand the human-Earth relationship, to find out what is required to achieve an ecologically sound way of life. For too long he has studied how industrial civilization has been degrading, not sustaining, the integrity of Earth’s ecosystems.

It is not irrational, he said, to wake up in the morning and ask yourself: How long can things go on like this? Is there a plan B for the end of the fossil-fuel era? How can we have perpetual economic growth on a finite planet? What happens when economic growth comes to an end? These are among the issues he raises in his 2015 book, Tracking Down Ecological Guidance: Presence, Beauty, Survival.

Even before compiling the book’s essays and talks — a number of them to Quaker groups over the years — he helped author How on Earth Do We Live Now, a book he called both a cry of alarm and a call to action. In both volumes, the reader can recognize the ominous logic of globalized hyper-industrialism, which, if left unchecked, he writes, will usher in catastrophic ecological, economic and societal breakdown.

A version of this story appeared in the April 7-20, 2017 print issue.

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June 16-29, 2017

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