Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Make It Real
distributed 4/25/08 - ©2008

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jim McBride, of Laguna Beach, California.. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

There's an old joke about somebody who received a notice from the bank about a bounced check. "My account can't be overdrawn," he shouted. "I still have checks in my checkbook!"

I heard a comment a few weeks ago that had a vaguely similar ring to it.

A pastor was reflecting on an often heard warning that the oceans of the world are being dramatically and dangerously over-fished. "It is hard to believe that the oceans are in so much trouble when the seafood counter at the grocery store is filled with fish."

Pastor Rick, I'm glad to say, wasn't questioning the global crisis of fisheries. He has read the reports, understands the science, and is deeply concerned. He knows that -- just like a good supply of blank checks doesn't guarantee cash in the bank account -- a display case filled with salmon and swordfish isn't a reliable indicator of the health of ocean fisheries.

Rick was not making a point about the validity of science. He raised a very important question about power of our perceptions. For most people, facts in a news report are less vivid and less motivating than the everyday reality of personal experiences. His question was one that has great strategic importance. How can we make it real?

Shelves full of tuna, often on sale, tell me that there are plenty of fish. A cold winter is enough to make global warming seem like a vague abstraction. Water gushing out of the tap takes the edge off of news about depleted aquifers. How can those abstract crises be made as real as our daily experiences?

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God's creation is full of diversity. We celebrate the rich variety of species that populate and stabilize the web of life. Humanity, too, is diverse -- a delightful and essential mix of gender, race, age and talents. It is important to recognize how a variety of perspectives and perceptions shapes our varied reaction to the issues of our day.

I know that I'm unusual (some would say odd) in the profound way that intellectual abstractions are real to me. A persuasive report on global environmental conditions is more real to me than what I experience in my daily life. My "conversion" about the urgency of global climate change came from a week of reading. I knew that I was not cut out for parish ministry when I would visit congregants in a nursing home, and be more interested in the economic basis for health care systems than I was in the personal stories of the folk I went to visit.

I've come to realize that my brain, and my ethics, are tuned to respond to systems and broad trends. The individual data points of my daily experiences are less compelling, less important, less "real" than the larger patterns into which they fit. I'm unusual in that way of seeing the world, but not unique. A similar approach is probably found in many of the scientists who are researching climate change and ocean fisheries. That systems approach is common in the people who develop large-scale public policy, whether for health care or the environment or education. Many of those who are most visible in naming the ecological crisis of our world find reality in abstractions and statistics.

I rejoice that human diversity includes the folk who can see the big picture -- and see it as vividly and compellingly real. I also know that most people do not see the world that way. I've come to accept that many people have a hard time perceiving as real the broad patterns and trends that are so vivid to me.

So Pastor Rick asked an essential question, and a very difficult one. How do we move from the abstractions of statistical data and academic reports, and make it real to the majority of people in our communities -- the people in our churches -- whose compelling reality is local and immediate? How do "systems thinkers" speak truth to the good people who view the world through different lenses?

I don't have any simple answers, and I am eager to hear from you about approaches that you have found effective. My hunch is that stories are much better than facts at bridging the conceptual divide in our churches and communities.

Sometimes, we can tell those stories in our own communities. In a Notes from the end of 2002, Discerning by Decades, I proposed church programs where long-time members share historical reflections on the character and health of their community. Seeing contrasts across the years can "make real" transitions that are so gradual that they become almost invisible. Increasing sprawl, traffic congestion, pollution and consumerism can become vivid when a respected friend remembers what it was like, not all that long ago.

Often, though, we can't be up-close-and-personal with large scale trends from far away. Good media resources can help us hear the stories of people that we'll never meet. The excellent video program Empty Oceans, Empty Nets presents "an unblinking look at the global marine fisheries crisis" that goes beyond what we see in our grocery stores. In one section, for example, retired swordfisherman Louis Larsen recalls catching significantly larger swordfish than those typically caught today. His recollections are backed up with historic photos and sales records that "make it real."

Denominational and ecumenical church structures give us another way to hear compelling stories. Through our global networks of mission and service, we are linked to people all around the world. Our mission partners in Africa can give first-person accounts of drought and famine that are spreading with global warming. Clergy who serve churches in India can write to us about the looming threat of disappearing snow pack in the Himalayas, which could cause the Ganges River to go dry for months every year. We will do well to cultivate these international relationships in the faith community, and to spread stories that speak truthfully from other settings.

Here in the United States, we are often shielded from the disconcerting realities of the world. We see fish only as fillets displayed on ice, and never as wild animals. Clothing in the latest styles hangs in the stores, without our awareness of those who labor in harsh conditions to produce it. We are oblivious to climate change because of the stability provided by heating and air conditioning, complex water supply systems, and globalized food supplies. The enormous threats and changes often seem very abstract.

If we want to motivate our friends and neighbors toward ecologically sustainable behaviors, we must make the dangers real to them. In doing so, we must speak to the ways in which they experience reality, which may be very different from the perceptions that some of us find most comfortable. Stories from trusted friends may be much more compelling than facts and figures.

As we seek to preserve the ecological diversity of God's creation, we need to be mindful of the great perceptual diversity of our human sisters and brothers. May God help us discern the experiences and stories which will make real the dangers we face.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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