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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Love, Understanding and Respect
distributed 6/22/01 - ©2001

Cartoonist Gary Larson and journalist Bill Moyers: an odd match?

The PBS broadcast earlier this week of Moyers' Earth on Edge (see www.earthonedge.org for details) got me thinking about a book by Larson that I frequently loan out. Both should be required for any church people who say they want to help people love nature.

Larson is famous for his "Far Side" cartoons, single panels that live on in calendars and greeting cards. His book, There's a Hair in My Dirt!, is a look at nature through the eyes (?!) of a family of worms. Written and illustrated in a children's storybook style, it is Larson's only publication that has a sustained story line.

The moral of the story: loving nature is not the same as understanding it. (The telling of the story on the way to the moral is great fun!)

The segment of Earth on Edge that triggered my recollections of Larson's book is set in South Africa, in an area that is biologically diverse and filled with rare plant species, all magnificently adapted to their setting. When European settlers came to the area, though, they saw what appeared to them to be barren hillsides, without the forests that they loved. So they scattered pine and eucalyptus seeds, and the new trees thrived and filled the slopes.

Today, these invasive trees are a threat to the human population, competing for water by soaking up billions of gallons that once filled mountain streambeds. Already, one-third of South Africans have an inadequate supply of water.

Five years ago the South African government decided to combat the problem by removing the invasive trees. 40,000 formerly unemployed people have been trained to cut down thousands of non-native trees, restoring the precious water that flows from the mountains to the rivers. Already, people who live near the streams say that the water is flowing more strongly than they have seen in 20 or 30 years.

The European settlers loved nature, the nature that they knew from a wetter region with deeper soils. But their lack of understanding -- both of their new setting, and of their impact on it -- caused an environmental crisis.

The efforts to solve that crisis show the truth of eco-justice. Preserving the habitat and restoring endangered plant species also provides jobs and improves the water supply. Eco-Justice brings together care for humans and care for the rest of the natural world.

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As I hear about efforts to bring environmental awareness into churches, I frequently hear about helping people experience and love nature. Getting the folk to discover the beauty and wonder of the natural world, to rejoice in God's creation, is seen as a key strategy for developing a sense of care and responsibility for the world around us.

I see several problems with that strategy, though.

  1. The nature that people are encouraged to love is usually stunningly beautiful and located somewhere "out there", far from our everyday experience. It is in the wilderness areas and the grand vistas, the sorts of scenes that appear on Sierra Club calendars and posters for national parks. Rarely are people invited to love the insects that devour a dead bird in the gutter. Going "out there" to discover nature can make people think of themselves as distant from, and uninvolved with, the natural world.

  2. Such a love of nature often comes without an understanding of the relationships and processes that make nature work. This can lead us into the same sort of misguided efforts that Moyers reported from South Africa. Our "love of nature" might actually cause us to destroy what is really natural.

  3. Loving nature as a part of God's creation does not necessarily compel people into a desire to protect the environment. A survey of sociological studies on this topic reports: "Individuals whose belief in the sacredness of nature is based on religious teachings are apparently less pro-environmentalist than people who do not tie that belief to God. It is almost as if people who believe that nature is sacred because it is God's creation feel that God will take care of nature, and that they need not."

The studies do suggest that combining a sense of the sacredness of nature with an awareness of the relationships within the natural world does lead to significant pro-environmental motivations.

Loving nature is not enough. We also need to help folk understand and respect nature. We need to help folk realize how humans are part of, and entwined in, the natural world.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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