The Shakers saw a world gone astray, a world ruled by lower human impulses. These impulses? The same ones society struggles with today: selfishness, greed, avarice, pride, lust, envy, gluttony, sloth, and wrath. The ancient Greeks saw the same lower impulse issues with their concepts of hubris and tragedy.
The Shaker solution was to mimic the best of early Christianity. To do that, they withdrew from “the world” and created their own, well-ordered and self-sufficient communities. They made life a one-way street, their way. To realize their ideals, they acted and took control. They stood on principle, and didn’t adopt a helpless demeanor. Their goal was to make heaven on earth; it was their job to create it in their tightly focused, and separate communities.
Ann Lee, founder of Shakerism captured the sentiment with a simple phrase, “hands to work, hearts to God.” The work was for the good of all, and for the good of all creatures and creation, in a community context, not for the self-advancement of individual members. When a member joined the Shakers, private property was given up to the community.
The Shaker hands to work meme came straight from the Protestant work ethic milieu. Works are the reflection of virtue. You know them by their fruits. The consensus fruits: prudence (reason), temperance, wisdom, justice, courage, hope, faith and charity, are good, as opposed to the evil, or worldly fruits mentioned above. Simple, frugal works are evidence of, and justification for being on the right side of life.
Shakers did not accumulate wealth. They gave their extra earnings and surplus to charity. The Shakers became well-respected for their integrity, good works, and high moral fiber. And, their actual orchards were in excellent condition.
In seeking an ideal expression of the good, the Shaker’s emulated Jesus and the early Christian community. It’s not surprising then, that there is major cross-over with communist and socialist ideals here, and that other utopians and communists studied the Shakers’ successes. Jesus saw the incipient evils of class and hierarchical society. “Socialism” is nothing if not the manifestation of the ideals of early Christianity. The threads of this compassionate message were to include and respect the little guy.
Fire and brimstone Christians, representing the opposite of compassion, make religion into a selfish, circling of the wagons proscription of the in-group. The fire and brimstone cohort, along with secular justifiers of selfishness, are an alternate thread. This alternate thread, in US history, has been amplified by city on the hill exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and material, worldly-advancement mythology that glorifies the individual. Jesus warned against false prophets, ones that justified selfishness over compassion. And so, there is fork in the road of how to be a true Christian, one is to hew to Jesus’s compassionate messages, the other to justly selfishness. One fork is to hew to the original social justice ideals, the other to collapse the religion into devotional business as usual that justifies the ruling classes, and thereby, evil injustice.
The way the world is today, it’s not hard to conclude that the forces of evil, selfishness, and unsustainability have prevailed. Just as Christianity has a fork in the road between good and evil, today, sustainable represents the choice between what is good, and unsustainable, what is the bad choice.
The Shaker experiment had many right ideas to create a just and sustainable society, and they undertook their program in a diligent manner, and on a scale that could be made to actually work. To scale up these right-minded ideals to society as a whole, was and is a daunting prospect, because the forces of hierarchy, evil, and selfishness are firmly in command of the power. The clearest path to power is through the cunning, evil side of our nature, the side with little compassionate moral tempering.
The Shakers saw a clear path to heaven on earth, through separation from the world. Kind of like a Buddhist meditation retreat, except for your whole life.
Today, just as in the days of the Shakers (1774 – early 1990s), people of conscience are not relieved of a sense of duty to act and make the world a better place, to make a just society. The need is still as great. And, the conundrum is still the same. “The world” is fraught with selfish temptation, and with poor selfish outcomes, just as it was in days gone by. The scale of the evil and unsustainability has grown massive today. Mass production has made the worst stuff the cheapest and most convenient and best choices the most inaccessible.
It is no longer possible for a group to withdraw, make life a one-way street and actually make a difference to the majority or to the environment. The combine is to big. However, the Transition movement does identify a hyper local focus as a critical path for sustainability. What we need today, in effect, is a modern day version of Shakerism, where all, in Sonoma Valley for example, work to steward our local lands for the best collective and sustainable outcomes.
We could all become new-fangled Shakers, and simplify, get the solar, the clean energy, the electric car, eat organic, cut out the industrial meat. Yet we also can’t pull the wool over our eyes and think that green replacements are a get out of jail free card for not reducing earth-killing and unsustainable conspicuous consumption. And we can’t do it alone either, strength in numbers and group purpose is called for. The Shaker way is not that of an individually-centered world; the Shakers put inclusion, community, sustainability, and stewardship above that of individual will, accumulation and advancement.
The Shakers made a good go of it and they lasted and prospered for 150 years. To their advantage, they came up in an age of pre-industrial hand work. Sustainable then, was a matter of diligence and hard work. You didn’t just buy things and have them delivered; you had to make food and shelter yourself. You had to till the soil, work from dawn to dusk. Life was what you did, not what you bought. The Shakers showed what a group of people could do when they all focused together on the good.
As the world turned to widespread industrial mass production, everything started to become fundamentally unsustainable, as mass exploitation of workers and resources, to make cheaper, mass products, tipped the game more toward evil, selfish conveniences, to more individualistic sheep (subject to insidious advertising propaganda) gone astray. Industrial convenience killed off self-reliance, hand work survival skills and knowledge, and the Protestant work ethic.
Industrial agriculture destroyed the hand-work agrarian production of rural communities, and led to a demographic exodus to the cities, where individuals became more highly educated, and worldly, but also more isolated from community and, less able to work together. Each person became a culture and a reason unto themselves. The fruits to know people by became advanced education, and property bought and hoarded instead of earned with the hands; selfishness began to rule at an even greater scale as “the individual” and individual rights became ascendant. Communist, society, and community, became words of denigration.
The Shakers saw an age-old problem, of a selfish world gone wrong, and they made their way towards solving the issues of evil, took action, and attempted to right the world. They made inclusive communities and invited the world to join. One critical problem for the Shakers, they were celibate. They couldn’t naturally reproduce themselves and their communities, and as the age of mass convenience and mass production grew in scope, the necessity of hand work to stave off the vagaries of Fate became less and less.
Celibacy and mass production killed the Shakers.
Celibacy was one way to deal with the near unstoppable impulse to mate and all the troubles that come with that: lust, greed, selfishness, envy, gluttony, avarice, all come out in spades with sex. Communal property was also a way to deal with greed and envy. The Shaker experiment amounted to selectively emphasizing the good and pruning out the bad. And it worked. If not for the great conveniences offered by industrial mass consumption, the Shakers would have fielded enough converts in a hand work world to maintain, and been able to balance the celibacy.
The great irony of our rational world view today, of how we are adapted to find a mate, reproduce, and then sequester private resources to provide for the offspring, is that this sets in motion a host of selfish behaviors that in aggregate, have made the human race about 100% unsustainable. Private property vs. communal property? The Shakers addressed this; you give it all up for the greater good. All the tribalism and jockeying for power and control of resources is aimed at survival, but the scale today is off the charts, the sum total equals our own destruction. Hubris and tragedy, evil, rule of the lower chakras, call it what you will. If we are so smart, why are we destroying the very ground that supports us?
The default settings for human behavior have been so successful from a survival standpoint, that we are heading straight for J-curve population crash. The Shaker, sustainable, S-curve carrying capacity way, takes away the unrestrained individual volition that is the cause of all our trouble. And it’s no secret that people resist limits on their behavior; the inertia and hubris of unrestrained individualism has us all headed to tragedy. For example, there’s enough kids in the world now, we don’t need any more, just to take care of who we have, what we need is to get to negative population growth and reduce our numbers back to a billion or less. The celibacy idea is actually on the money, why make more of the core problem?
As my young friend, Gabe Baisan asked, “you mean we have to go against our own nature to be moral and sustainable?” Yes we do. The Shakers made a moral pirouette, the same one humanity as a whole needs to make today. We need to come together, to gather into what the Shakers called “gospel order”, only today, we need to do it with other words and concepts, gathering into sustainable order would be it.
The slavishness to convenience, mass production and consumption needs to stop, and all the tacit evil and destruction that comes with it. People need to be inconvenienced, need to look the hubris in the mirror, to have to more directly make a satisfying and sustainable life, and do it simply, with the hands, mind and heart, without a lot of unsustainable material props, to avoid the collective tragedy we can all see coming.
In a town like Sonoma, where individual indulgence is elevated to the highest value, and seen as an economic necessity, and all boosters take great pains to say how great it all is, and all fight about the disposition of private property and what is “mine”, we are about like the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, a world gone astray, very far from Shaker ideals of heaven on earth, and their modern equivalent, sustainability.
We’re fighting about deck chairs on the Titanic, while thickening icebergs of our own self-made, selfish destiny lie waiting in plain sight threatening to take us all out.
The Shakers saw an essential truth: human nature is fatally conflicted between good and evil. The world was full of evil then, as it is today. What are we going to do about it? Evil is nothing more than not caring about the good: prudence (reason), temperance, wisdom, justice, courage, hope, faith and charity. To aspire to our higher angels and to call out and limit the lower ones is a universal human challenge, one we need to adapt to and quick. Sustainability today is not mere utopianism, and neither was the aspiration of heaven on earth by the Shakers.
The exact same project, with a few updating tweaks, calls to be realized today.