Bolton Institute: where less is more
Wellesley, Mass. — It is 10 a.m., a later-than-usual start at the Bolton Institute for a Sustainable Future. But after all, Elizabeth and David Dodson Gray had been up until 1 a.m. churning out urgent correspondence. Now this pair of Yale Divinity School graduates-turned-think-tankers were sandwiching an interview with the Monitor between breakfast and departure for an out-of-town lecture they were due to give that evening.
It's typical of how homespun family life gets woven into the tapestry of work for these two preachers who wandered out of a Westboro, Mass., pulpit and began making waves in the limits-to-growth movement. Everything they experience turns into modern parables, into their books, lectures, TV appearances, consultation on energy, the environment, and what's ahead for the human race.
The two met at Yale, David with a Yale degree in mechanical engineering, Elizabeth with a history degree from Smith College.
"David never intended to go into parish ministry," Elizabeth explains. "He planned to teach in a college religion department."
"But in those days," he chimes in, "people obeyed their bishop. So I went. I wasn't called to it, I was pushed in. Many christians have experiences like this. Things we don't initially welcome turn out to be great opportunities."
For 16 years this ordained minister, propelled into his pulpit, performed parish work in Providence, R.I., St. Louis, and finally Westboro. Even though Elizabeth was not ordained, the pair worked as colleagues, wrote sermons together, and taught adult education side by side.
But in 1972 they pried their way out of the pulpit and took a quantum leap from serving local parishioners to debating world survival issues. Today, they say, "We are minstering to a whole culture that needs to change."
The first issue that coaxed them out of a parish-centered ministry into to an issue-centered ministry was corporate social responsibility. Picketing Harvard students were demanding that their university sell its substantial investments in Gulf Oil's operations in Portuguese Angola to protest what students charged were unfair employment practices against black Angolans. (Angola won its independence in 1975.) This protest raised the larger issue of all American corporation' moral responsibilities in doing business in South Africa, with its repressive apartheid policies.
"The original idea of a trustee was someone whoi managed your money for financial return. The idea that you were supposed to get a moral dividend was new," David recalls.
The ethics of such business decisions caught the interest of the Dodson Grays. Result: They sponsored a series of lectures on ethics in investments in Boston's financial area aimed at decisionmakers in colleges, churches, and financial houses. From questioning what big business was doing to its employees and other people, this pair of ministers moved on to question what an industrial society was doing to the planet.
"Until as recently as 1972 we had assumed that we would just go on using ever-increasing amounts of energy," Elizabeth points out. "That seems strange to us now. We have changed our ideas enough to realize that was odd. But then it was unquestioned. That is what industrial society required, and industrial society was built on growth.
"Growth was unquestioned until the book 'Limits to Growth' came out [ published in the early 1970s by the Club of Rome, the international group of prominent business people and scholars]. It created a stir, because it said that growth is limited by a finite planet, by pollution, by energy. That just blew people's minds. They said, "That can't be! Because an industrial system has to grow in order to be an industrial system.'"
The book warned that the world is closer than it thinks to those limits, and that the end of an era was at hand. It pointed to an obvious slowing down of economic growth. It urged people to face up to the ultimate implications of unlimited physical growth. The Dodson Grays were among those quick to latch onto this controversial theory.
"I was looking for a bigger stick to get the attention of big business," David says. "The limits-to-growth issues seemed a likely candidate. If the activities of our corporations and our industrial society really were going to come into a collision with the limits of creation, that was pretty important. We would have to change how we did things."
Their concern with energy and the drain on natural resources, food and population, land and water is now the center of the Dodson Gray's work.
"Our society is like a car hurtling down the highway," Elizabeth reasons. "We are overdriving our headlights. They are only showing us a part of the way ahead. We are not understanding the long-term consequences of what it is we are doing.
"As a society we are just beginning to realize that we have some absolute limits in terms of running out of resources . . . of how much stress we can put on our air and water. We are not even sure where those are. We haven't done the research to know. They may be right in front of our headlights now. . . . We have to allow time for society to adapt. To change the systems of what we are doing now is going to take perhaps 20 years, conservatively."
As early as 1972, a year before the Arab oil embargo, the Dodson Grays heard that Carroll Wilson, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was doing research in this field. Joining his seminar project on "Critical Choices for the Future," they did the staff work for 10 days of congressional hearings in Washington on this topic.
"Growth and Its Implications for the Future," the report prepared for those hearings by the Dodson Grays and William F. Martin, another MIT colleague, has become the basis for the two ministers' work. They taught this subject at MIT from 1974 to '76 and at Williams College in 1977. Since then, they have been traveling all over the country lecturing on campuses and to church and women's groups. The theme of their "sermons": We must change our values if we are going to have a sustainable society.
"What particularly interested us," Elizabeth explains, "was not only what were the limits to growth issues and how did they interact, but . . . what values would we need to have a sustainable society?
"Obviously, the 'more and more consumption' value that keeps this society going is part of what is driving us to use up all our resources, to pollute the environment. We are going to have to change that value if we are going to have a society that does not use up all its resources and does not pollute its environment."
Today's throwaway culture, the Dodson Grays insist, has got to learn to recycle, repair, and reuse its resources, to stop building obsolescene into its commercial products. "And we are going to have to learn to be kind to one another and share in a way that we have refused to do," the ministers say. Those are a few of the values they see are needed.
"We have had the feeling that as long as the pie got bigger, it would trickle down to the poor," Elizabeth says. "Now the resources to put into it to make it bigger and because the earth cannot deal with the pollution that comes from making it bigger, we are going to have to take the wealth that we have and share it more evenly. That it why we are going to have to shift from material growth into spiritual growth. We are like children who don't yet know how to share . . . . I think we are going to have to grow up in terms of real spiritual maturity."
The Dodson Grays make no pretense of having a road map to steer through the growth limits which they see lying ahead. Just as David was pushed into a parish experience he didn't choose, he thinks that humanity is going to have to work at finding good out of what may be difficult future.
"Our culture has had an identity which has defined itself by growth," Elizabeth says. "We have said that this is a good life because we are getting more things every day. That is not an identity that we can go on having for ourselves."
A mother whose grown children are no longer dependent upon her has to find a new sense of identity. So must retired business people.
The consumer culture, these ministers think, is at what they call "midlife passage." Many people, they contend, define themselves as "a person who has" -- an elegant home, a title on the door, a car, a stereo. They quote psychologist Erich Fromm as suggesting that people are going to have to shift to "an identity of being. I am valuable not because of what I have, but because I am a loving person."
Well, if physical growth for society is going to have a cutoff point the way it does for adolescents to keep them from growing into giants, where is society headed?
"The kind of growth we have after we are a grown-up," David says, "is developing other dimensions of our life in human community. . . . We are going to have to learn to share better with all people on the earth and with all other species, to be kind to one another in a way that we have really refused to do.
"The only way in which you can make this society work is by not arousing antagonisms and by figuring out ways in which what I do is going to be good for you and what you do is going to be good for me, and that what we humans do is going to go with the grain of creation rather than walking with hobnailed boots across everything and being destructive."
The Dodson Grays say Hazel Henderson, who also writes in the limits-to-growth movement, makes their point for them when he says: "For the first time in human history, morality has become pragnatic."
"That is exactly what we are saying," Elizabeth stresses. "That we are going to be forced to live better with one another or not live at all. Our very advances in technology, the shrinking of the planet in terms of our being incredibly interconnected with one another as humans and also with our biosphere , is making that happen in a way that it never did before."
She cites the Palestinian guerrilla warfare and the seizure of the American Embassy in Iran as examples of what she calls "the boomerang effect of what you do to other people. There is no 'away' to throw things to anymore -- either toxic wastes or social problems. The consequences of what you do catch up with you." And that, Elizabeth points out, is just a modern way of saying what Paul told the Galatians: "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Gal. 6:7 ). "I think the churches have settled for too small a vision of what they are called to," David puts in. "The churches are not saying, 'Look out there at what is happening in the real world. It is really proving what the church has been saying all along.' The church is not saying that because it has been concerned with people rather than with these issues."
Oddly, Elizabeth adds; "it is the people who are involved in these survival issues who are . . . proclaiming Jesus' gospel but in different words. In the circles in which we move, the way you say this is the "all-win ethic" -- you have to make decisions in which everybody will win. We know lots of people who are saying that you have to have it. I say it is the only thing that is practical today."
In many ways, the Dodson Grays are practicing what they are preaching to the whole culture. They have made a "midlife passage" from one identity to another and find their reorganized life thoroughly satisfying. While putting their daughter through college and their son through prep school, they are living frugally without any sense of loss of having "things."
"In a strange way," Elizabeth says, "when we have less, we enjoy what we have more. It is not how much we have but how much we enjoy that makes happiness."
When they inherited the Bolton Institute from its founder, Joan Martin Nicholson, an environmentalist who is now director of the office of public awareness in the Environmental Protection Agency, they were told they would have to spend 60 percent of their time raising money. They opted instead to move the "institute" -- really just a legal shell, some typewriters and file cases -- up to Wellesley, to phase out its remaining government contract, and to run Bolton on a shoestring as a mom-and-pop think tank out of their home -- a work location that they believe will be much more widespread in future decades.
They moved the institute to Wellesley from Westboro to save 123 miles of daily commuting. They recycle their trash at the Wellesley town dump; they save on home fuel by "harvesting" the solar energy that pours into their living room/office. And David occasionally exercises his privileges as an ordained minister to marry couples -- right in this same all-purpose room.
And it would be hard to find a happier, busier, more congenial married couple. For the Dodson Grays, less has come to seem like more.
Society, David believes, is also being called upon now to draw on its inner resources, in what he calls this "spiritual crisis . . . so that people won't judge progress anymore by the number of things they have or how much money they have put aside but by the quality of life and the meaningfulness of their days.
"If we continue the great American foot-race for the top of the economic heap , there are going to be more of us who aren't going to make it in that race," he says. "I love the way they talk about the Boston marathon -- "the race in which everyone is a winner.' We are going to have to organize things so that they can be like that."