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

A 30-Second Revelation
distributed 7/14/06 - ©2006

A 30-second TV commercial has convinced me that the church must be at the heart of effective efforts to resolve the modern ecological crisis.

Let me be clear that the short ad which I saw Monday morning on CNN wasn't a public service spot about climate stewardship. The message I carried away was not what the advertiser intended.

Here's what I saw. (Disclaimer: I've only seen the commercial once, and I haven't been able to find a detailed description of the ad, so this is from my vivid recollection.)

The opening scene is an attractive playground in an upscale park. Kids are having fun on a collection of swings and other recreational equipment. The camera closes in on a slide where a happy suburban mom is about to help her preschooler up the ladder.

Suddenly, another mom zooms in and plops her tyke on the steps. "Hey!" says mom #1. "We were here first!"

"Tough luck," replies the obnoxious intruder as she pushes her kid onto the slide.

The courteous mom hovers on the verge of tears for a moment, then she takes her urchin by the hand and stalks away. We see her climb into her sensibly small car, and drive off.

The next scene is a series of quick images of mom touring an auto dealership, and then signing papers. This little drama ends with mom, now satisfied and secure, driving away in her new monster SUV. The picture fades out, and "HUMMER" appears on the screen.

There was probably more dialogue and voice-over, but this captures the flow and the feel of a profoundly crass piece of advertising.

Obviously, the moment of parental conflict in the park is an allegory for the more significant conflicts that we all experience in our daily lives. Being cut off while taking Junior to the slide is an emotional parallel to being passed over for a promotion at work, or some other deeply painful experience.

But the proposed resolution to such a distressing situation is not an allegory. The blatant message of the ad is this: if you feel powerless and dismissed, drive a powerful car that can't be ignored.

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The Earth is in bad shape. Among many other dramatic problems, climate change is disrupting the entire web of life. The use of fossil fuels, including the gas we burn in our cars, is a major contributor to this problem.

In the face of this global warming crisis, we hear scientifically-grounded and rational discussions about steps that might be taken to at least minimize the growing problem. Fuel economy standards for cars, energy efficiency in our homes and businesses, alternative energy sources -- all of these make perfectly good sense.

But the TV advertisement that I saw this week shows why those marvelously rational approaches, in themselves, won't do the job.

The Hummer ad wasn't selling transportation. Fuel economy and environmental responsibility don't have any connection to the ad's message. One of the most over-sized vehicles on the planet is being marketed as a way to heal emotional distress.

That advertising ploy is really, really sick. It also is not unique. The Hummer ad is just a bit more blatant than most of the commercials which play on the same emotions.

The SUV ad was an eye-opener for me. That brief morality play named the societal dysfunctions which are proliferating in our modern world, and it revealed some of the utterly inappropriate ways that the marketplace responds to those problems.

Insecure and wounded people are acting out their pain by driving obscene vehicles, over-stressed workers desperate for re-creation are flying to distant vacations instead of relaxing close to home, and status-deprived families are buying urban castles as a way of asserting their identity. The root causes of global warming are pastoral and psychological, as well as technological.

If we want to put a dent in the Earth-damaging, over-consumptive behaviors around us, then we need to deal with the societal problems which drive those behaviors. We need to teach the skills and perspectives which can open new and healing directions.

In our churches (and schools, community centers, etc.), we need to start giving people the personal and psychological tools to handle their anger and pain. We need to teach conflict resolution, and offer assertiveness training. We need to look at forgiveness and friendship. In these and many other ways, we need to help that metaphorical suburban mom find a better way of dealing with her wounds than buying and driving a 2-ton car.

I count on the scientists and the policy wonks to work through the technical matters that we need to live more gently and more sustainably on this wounded planet -- and I hope that our churches will be enthusiastic advocates for the practical steps which can be taken. But that is not where the church can play its most critical role.

Our churches can play a distinctive and important role when they bring healing -- to individuals, families, communities and the earth -- by addressing the deep personal hurts which have been used so crassly to sell inappropriate products.

If we're doing our job well, climate-destroying products like Hummers and trophy homes won't have a market in our more humane communities. That's good for the Earth, and good for us all.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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