Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Creating a Compelling Story
distributed 5/18/18 - ©2018

I've found a message of hope and wisdom in a recent article by James Gustave Speth, The Joyful Economy . In two dozen pages, he spells out in some detail an agenda for a community in which "the goal of economic life is to sustain, nourish, and restore human and natural communities, so that the material and non-material blessings of life are available to all."

In particular, I'm grateful for the challenging scope of his vision, which reaches far beyond political activism. He wrote (p. 6), "Today's environmentalism is fine as far as it goes. The problem has been the absence of huge, complementary investments of time, energy, and money in other, deeper approaches to change."

Especially for the faith-based constituency of Eco-Justice Ministries, his call for deeper approaches to change is both exciting and urgent. Today I reflect on Speth's insights, and issue an invitation to the Eco-Justice Notes community.

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Gus Speth wrote The Joyful Economy in March of 2017, and his message certainly is timely in this era of aggressive action from the White House, Congress and many states. The abrupt and wide-spread reversal of long-standing environmental and social justice policies calls for a newly articulated vision of progressive values and faithful ethics.

But Gus does not write as a diatribe against a suddenly appearing conservative political force. His analysis goes back to 1971 and the start of the US Chamber of Commerce's fight against environmental regulation, the rise in the 1970s of the "enormously successful anti-environmental disinformation industry," and "the dangerous new conditions ushered in by the Reagan revolution of 1980." He tells not of specific policies through those decades, but of a carefully crafted assault.

Speth quotes from Judith Layzer book, "Open for Business" (published in 2012, the mid-point of the Obama years):

Since the 1970s, conservative activists have disseminated a compelling antiregulatory storyline to counter the environmentalist narrative, mobilized grassroots opposition to environmental regulations, and undertaken sophisticated legal challenges to the basis for and implementation of environmental laws. Over time, these activities have imparted legitimacy to a new antiregulatory rhetoric, one that emphasizes distrust of the federal bureaucracy, admiration for unfettered private property rights and markets, skepticism about science, and disdain for environmental advocates.

The last sentence of that quote, describing the legitimacy granted to broad perspectives, speaks with amazing accuracy of the political climate that has been used so forcefully by Mr. Trump and his allies. As many of us have experienced so often in the last 16 months, a recitation of scientific and economic facts usually can't break through the tightly held worldview expressed by that rhetoric, distrust, admiration, skepticism and disdain. There is an overarching storyline which is more powerful than facts and ethical analysis.

Speth's fairly brief historical and political analysis is important -- and if that is all that he had to say, the article would be depressing. But as I said, I find the article to be hopeful in offering a clear alternative that looks to the realm of change that has been used so effectively by conservatives through the past 50 years.

Speth writes, "I do believe we won't get far in addressing our major challenges unless there is a parallel, ongoing transformation in our values and culture." He then lists, in seven short bullet points (pages 12-13), ways in which the values of the dominant culture should shift. From my perspective as an eco-justice advocate, I found nothing in his list that is surprising. Most of his seven points are themes that I've often developed in Eco-Justice Notes.

The opportunity and the challenge that I find in Speth's paper is in the step that comes after his succinct listing of the seven values. The necessary next step is weaving those details into a new and timely narrative. Speth quotes Howard Gardner (p. 13):

I have suggested one way to capture the attention of a disparate population: by creating a compelling story, embodying that story in one's own life, and presenting the story in many different formats so that it can eventually topple the counterstories in one's culture. ... The story must be simple, easy to identify with, emotionally resonant, and evocative of positive experiences.

In the margin beside the Gardner quote, I wrote one word -- framing. The development of a simple, emotional and positive story is at the heart of what is called "strategic framing." Cognitive linguist George Lakoff popularized the notion of framing, and others such as the Frameworks Institute have developed broader approaches to framing and story development as components of social change.

As Lakoff notes, "A list of issues is not a moral vision." A worldview, a paradigm, a compelling frame -- these are communicated and appropriated when they speak to our hearts as well as our minds. We need a compelling story, a hopeful and enticing vision of where we want to be going.

Speth writes, "Our environmental discourse has thus far been dominated by lawyers, scientists, and economists. Now, we need to hear a lot more from the poets, preachers, philosophers, and psychologists." Yes, preachers and faith leaders are essential in developing this new narrative -- and I lament that we have been very late and timid in taking on this task. Last August, my reflections in Notes acknowledged that

We, in the church, simply have not spoken out with an alternative truth. We have not articulated a perspective which makes sense out of the world's crisis, and guides us toward a meaningful future. If we have good news, we've kept it a secret -- even within our congregations.

Yes, churches are paying more attention to the environment than we did 20 years ago. But in most settings, there hasn't been consistent work at building an overarching narrative of eco-justice ethics. The once-a-year Earth Day service does not strengthen a compelling story unless it ties into language and hopes that are used constantly. In many congregations and denominations, creation justice is not part of the central story that we tell of faith and meaning. Our loving relationship with all neighbors -- around the world, of future generations, and of all species -- has not been named at the heart of the church's good news.

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Gus Speth's wonderful articulation of transformation toward "the joyful economy" inspires me to voice an invitation to members of the Eco-Justice Notes community.

Are you interested in exploring how Christian churches can be intentional and effective in developing a clear, compelling storyline that expresses our deepest eco-justice values and our core theological affirmations? Are you willing to be part of an ongoing conversation about how churches can nurture the language and stories that empower our faith and values for transformation? Our discussion would take place mostly by email, perhaps with some video conferencing and in-person meetings.

Gus Speth's paper can be one source that we'd use in that conversation. Another important source might be Laudato Si from Pope Francis -- and I'm eager to build a list of the most pertinent wise thinkers that can guide us.

If you're interested in being part of this conversation, please reply to let me know. Depending on the response, we'll start to sketch out ways to structure our reflections so that we stay on-topic and within reasonable amounts of time.

Faith communities are all about stories of meaning and values. With intention and commitment, we can refresh our stories to address the new realities of Earth's distress, and to topple the destructive and deceitful stories of exploitation and violence.

I invite you to join me in crafting that powerful story.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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