Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Discerning by Decades
distributed 12/27/02 - ©2002

In our personal lives, a single year can bring astounding amounts of change. Births and deaths, shifts in relationships with family and friends, job changes and health issues all leave their mark. These things touch us deeply, and an occasion like New Years is a time to note how our lives are different than they were just one cycle before.

One year is not enough for perceiving some of the enormous transformations in our society and our world, though. Gradual changes may not stand out on that sort of scale. We need to take a somewhat larger view to catch onto what is happening around us.

This week, two examples of that larger view lead to a program suggestion for churches.

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In "After Nature's Revolt," Dieter Hessel wrote: "In recent years, the world has been alerted to such environmental dangers as a thinning layer of ozone, global warming due to a greenhouse effect in the upper atmosphere, and population growth rapidly approaching 5.5 billion persons -- a quarter of whom live in abject poverty."

I flipped to the front of the book and checked the copyright date: 1992. Ten years ago.

One decade, and the population has gone from "rapidly approaching 5.5 billion" to where it now stands at well over 6 billion.

The shift in round numbers across such a short time span was stunning to me. A year's growth of "just" 80 million people doesn't hit home with an emotional impact. The fact that the world's human population has more than doubled in the 50 years of my lifetime covers too long of a span to trigger a gut reaction.

But 10 years is a manageable slice of life. In many ways, my life and my world seem pretty much the same now as they were then. Yet, in that short time, the world's human population has grown by 10%, by more than a half-billion people.

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I was sorting through some files, and came across a map of Colorado printed in 1970. A quick glance confirmed the obvious continuities about the state's geography: the familiar mountains and plains, rivers and cities were all there in 1970. A closer look revealed a few striking differences: 30 years ago, Interstate 70 hadn't been pushed through the high mountains, and some of today's big reservoirs didn't exist.

But the real surprise came when I looked at the inset map for metropolitan Denver. The total "metropolis" of 1970 was tiny! Suburban communities marked on that map by little dots are now cities in their own right, and spread across hundreds of square miles. Major highways that run through the heart of today's urban area were marked as "under construction" on the outer fringes of the metropolitan region. The site of today's outlying beltways and their related subdivisions lie far outside the frame of that regional map.

That 30 year old map of Denver cut through any sterile and technical definitions of "urban sprawl." Three decades of growth and change are vividly revealed.

My family has lived in Denver for almost half of that 30 year span. The growth and sprawl has been a gradual and incremental process. The ongoing changes blend rather quickly into what seems normal. Looking at the old map helped me to see the cumulative effect of such constant change.

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These two examples of long-term change happen to point out cases of astonishing growth. Across those same years, some rural areas have experienced declining populations and vitality. Other changes in our collective lives are more qualitative and subjective. It is helpful to reflect on these long-term social changes -- just like we do personally at New Years -- and to ponder whether they represent "progress."

An effective church program could be built around a careful look at how our lives and communities have changed over a span of years. A structured format for recollection, comparison and evaluation could be used with a fellowship group, a retreat, or perhaps a series of classes.

  • Recruit some long-time residents of the community to reflect on how the area has changed over 10, 20 or 30 years. Have them dig out family pictures, or find old newspapers at the library, or locate maps from that era. The whole group can evaluate the changes in population, environmental quality and other social factors.

  • Gather a panel of folk to reflect on changes in the pace and the quality of life -- maybe from when they were in high school. How have technology, social expectations and changing institutions impacted the way we live? How are things better and worse, and where do we want to be headed? What moral and ethical norms shape our perspectives?
The point of such a program is not to give some geezers an opportunity to reminisce about "the old days." Rather, their insights into long-term social changes can be used to inform a group conversation about where we are going now.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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