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

The Wombat
distributed 6/11/10 - ©2010

If you've never seen it, you need to watch "The Wombat". It is a brilliant and delightful piece of moral communication.

The Wombat is a one minute long animation that spells out the basics of an eco-justice ethical perspective. The script for this short film uses just 168 words, all of them familiar to any child. (I suggest that you watch it now, before reading more.)

With a flurry of engaging images, the four-footed narrator asserts three truths:

  1. Earth is our home -- cherish it and protect it.
  2. We have to get along with our neighbors, and learn to share.
  3. Everything is connected. They all depend on one another. If you ignore that, you're doomed.

Those are foundational moral perspectives, which the wombat backs up with just enough detail -- both verbal and visual -- to be clearly realistic. In 60 seconds and three themes, the basics of a comprehensive ethical perspective are spelled out in an engaging and memorable way.

The animation went "viral" about four years ago. In the lingo of the internet and marketing, a viral message is one that spreads itself. People love to pass it along to their friends, either because it is so much fun, or because it speaks truth.

In 2010, when a libertarian message of individualism is getting so much press, and when a short-term appeal for jobs and cheap energy trumps the call for environmental protection, I'd love to see the Wombat go viral again. It is both fun, and true.

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In recent months, I've commented to quite a few of my friends and colleagues about the communication problems of "the left" or "progressives". We -- and I generally do accept those labels for myself, although somewhat reluctantly -- we are not doing well at telling our story in a way that is attention-grabbing or compelling. That is true of progressive religion, as well as in politics.

George Lakoff's 2004 book about strategic framing, Don't Think of an Elephant, takes a historical look at the style of the two major political camps in the US. On the conservative side, he says, there has been a long-term and well-organized effort to build a coherent message. It is rooted in a clear worldview (which Lakoff calls "strict father"), and has lots of stories and images that help people to attach themselves to that message.

On the liberal side, Lakoff also points to a worldview (the "nurturing parent"). He says, though, that progressives have not done well at developing their base of stories and metaphors. Instead of telling stories, the political left has tended to provide very rational arguments for public policies. They are well-researched and pragmatic, but they are not compelling or emotionally rich. Barack Obama, on the campaign trail in 2008, seemed to have taken Lakoff to heart with a motivating vision for change. The Obama administration, through the last 16 months, though, seems to have dropped back into policy wonk style.

On any number of essential issues -- climate change, energy (including deep water oil drilling), health care, immigration -- there are deep and bitter divides between conservatives and progressives. Profound disagreements are evident about the role of government, about individual self-interest vs. the common good, about the nature of progress and justice. Those difference grow less from facts that each side presents than from the divergent values and ethics that are used to organize and evaluate the facts.

A few weeks ago, a friend in Maryland pointed me toward some video clips of a presentation that happened in my own Denver neighborhood. A local radio station brought in Sarah Palin and two other commentators for an evening of speeches. The clips I saw were of one of the panel members during a Q&A part of the program. From my perspective as a strong advocate for the progressive church and for movements to foster eco-justice, I wrote back to Jane:

I was generally repulsed by everything Prager had to say in the video clips -- but I'm also aware that "the left" doesn't have much of a track record in putting forth any comparable kind of a historically and philosophically grounded message to rally our base. The question is not, "can we dispute what he says?" (Yes we can, and it doesn't help). The question is, can we put a speaker in front of a crowd and have them excited and energized about working for the cause?

What are the shining historical stories that we can tell to reinforce our message? What are the three foundational principles that we can assert, and that people will want to claim? What are the failures of "the other side" that we can point to that won't make us look mean, and that will bolster our position?

The speechwriters and commentators, the clergy and religious leaders, need to get going on that sort of clear and compelling message, and put it out against the "tea party" libertarianism, and the other messages from the far right (corporate, religious, etc.).

As I reflect on what I wrote to Jane, the three bullet points from the wombat are a really good starting point for framing an eco-justice message. From a faith perspective, those three points are deeply rooted. Cherishing and protecting creation, "neighbors" and sharing, relationship and responsibility are all familiar and foundational principles. (They are themes that have appeared often and explicitly in Eco-Justice Notes, by the way!)

In the coming months, there will be tough political battles about climate and energy legislation. News reports about primary elections this week have analyzed the strength or weakness of "tea party" conservatives. Core questions about our relationship with creation and with our neighbors are at play in this summer's public conversations.

The progressive church -- and, I dare say, many expressions of conservative churches, too -- can be faithful and relevant by giving voice to our foundational stories about neighbors and sharing, about compassion and community, about relationship and responsibility. We can draw on the depth of the Gospel as well as the catchy message of the wombat when we speak that important truth to the world.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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