Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Trust, Forests and War
distributed 1/31/03 - ©2003

Trust is a fragile and often elusive quality.

The importance of trust in our interpersonal relationships is obvious -- just look at how often the theme emerges in the advice columns! But trust also matters in areas of community life and public policy.

At a local church adult class that I was facilitating, a question was raised about the profound distrust permeating the debate over many environmental policies. The group's conversation zeroed in on a specific local example.

In Colorado's ongoing drought, after a century of overly-vigorous suppression of forest fires, the danger of uncontrollable wildfires is extreme. Something needs to be done to reduce the risk, and to restore a more natural balance to mountain ecosystems. In the heated debate about which forest management strategies to use, technical discussions are frequently intertwined with charges that impugn the motives of opponents.

One side in this conflict favors the use of logging to thin the forests and remove fuel from potential fires. Another side advocates a greater role for controlled, low-intensity fires as the agent for reducing risk and restoring forest health. Both groups agree that selective cutting is a necessary strategy where dense forests and dense human populations are in close proximity. The debate gets nasty when it comes to backcountry areas.

Environmental groups have charged that forest thinning to reduce fire risk is being used as a ploy, when the real goal for new public policies is to increase the volume of logging for the benefit of the businesses involved. They point to plans showing that logging would occur in areas offering the most profit, not in the areas with the greatest fire risk.

Those favoring logging raise counter-charges that the environmentalists don't care about the human communities involved, and that they are out to stop all logging. They point to a long history of legal and procedural challenges to almost all backcountry timber sales.

It is almost impossible to have a meaningful discussion about fire prevention policies, because the trust levels are so low between two of the factions. Neither side believes that the other is being totally up-front and honest about their real intentions, their motives, and their values. The suspicion of hidden agendas poisons all public debate.

In our church class, the discussion of trust led quickly to talk about a unique role that churches can have in such a conflicted situation. As trusted members of our communities, churches can host forums where real conversation -- as opposed to policy debate -- takes place. Gathering loggers, environmentalists, Forest Service employees, and local residents can be a gift of grace when it is an effort to build understanding. An open forum builds trust when people can tell their stories, give voice to their hopes and fears, and describe their deeply held values.

Such a gathering might calm tumultuous waters and allow consensus decisions to emerge. Or the conversation might expose real hypocrisy and self-interest in the motives of one, or all, of the parties. But the community as a whole will be well-served by the attempt to foster trust and understanding.

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The same question of trust and distrust simmers just below the surface as the US government pushes ever closer to war with Iraq.

The explicit public debates focus on whether a strong case has been made about the threats posed by Saddam Hussein, and whether Iraq is in "material breach" of UN resolutions. For many of us, though, it is difficult to answer those questions because we don't trust those who are shaping the policy and providing the information.

Just as some environmentalists charge that forest thinning proposals are really a front for commercial logging interests, many in the peace movement charge that the drive toward war has strong motivations unrelated to weapons of mass destruction.

Bumper stickers, columnists and political cartoons name a range of factors that are not discussed in White House press briefings, or voiced at the UN. Foremost of those issues is control over Iraq's abundant oil fields. Some suggest that Iraq is being used to displace examination of corporate scandals, the economy or anti-terrorism efforts. What of the personal factors where the history of this president's father and Saddam comes into play?

Trust about the justification for war is weakened when the pervasive values of this administration so clearly lean toward an arrogant assertion of US cultural, economic and military power. Trust is weakened when the US rejects international cooperation on global warming and criminal courts, and acknowledges the UN only when it suits our own purposes. Trust is weakened when the US approach to Iraq is so dramatically different from its approach to North Korea's nuclear threat.

Mr. Bush makes his case for war by talking at length about Iraq and Saddam Hussein. What is needed now is for Mr. Bush to speak very candidly about himself -- about his own values and emotions, about why this one issue has risen to such prominence.

A lack of trust divides communities, and removes legitimacy from policies and decisions that may be perfectly valid. Technical policy discussions do nothing to build trust. Indeed, the way those discussions are framed often adds to the distrust. Trust can grow out of a personal exchange that honestly reveals feelings, values and motivations.

I pray that our congregations can provide occasions that address and heal the mistrust which divides our local settings. And on this month's international scene, I hope and pray that Mr. Bush will speak to those very areas of his values and style that lead so many of us to distrust his decisions and his policies.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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