Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Dry Hillsides and Ecological Truth
distributed 11/30/18 - ©2018

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jeff Odendahl, of Maplewood, Minnesota, in memory of Mary Krantz. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

I started 2018 with five words.

Well, actually, I've never been known to be that concise. My first Eco-Justice Notes of 2018 expounded on five words that I would use "to guide my awareness, my discernment and my action through all of the turmoil and unpredictability that lie ahead."

Those five words -- which I've had posted over my desk for 11 months now -- are "The world is inherently relational."

That short sentence is a theological affirmation, a scientific statement, and a political assertion. Through this year, I have come back to that brief statement countless times in my own reflections, in conversations, in meetings with church leaders, and in discussions about hot-button political topics.

As we enter the final month of 2018, it is timely to look again at this affirmation. An example from my home turf in the western United States shows how the science and theology of "inherently relational" also informs urgent policy questions.

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Attentive observers in the Rocky Mountain West will notice something about the mountain slopes. Some of them are greener than others, with quite a bit more vegetation.

An observer who is both attentive and inquisitive will start to notice a consistent pattern. Hillsides that face north will be greener than the nearby areas which face south. The two sides of a valley -- sharing the same soils and the same weather -- will look dramatically different. (A lovely photo of Clear Creek Canyon just west of Denver shows the relatively barren south facing slope on the right.) The reason isn't hard to discern.

Rain and snow fall on both places, but the ones which face south will get a lot more sunshine. The snow there melts much more quickly. Moisture evaporates in the bright sun. The south facing soil is drier.

In this part of the world, we don't get an excess of moisture, even in good years. A little bit of difference in how much water is retained between the sunny and shady areas can be decisive in which plants are able to thrive. Damper ground grows more plants and larger plants. Even tourists zipping by on the highway can see the contrast.

What many travelers won't realize is that the plants growing on the two hillsides might be completely different. It is fairly obvious when one side has only grasses, while the other has trees and shrubs. But it could be a bit harder to notice if evergreen trees are of different species -- Ponderosa Pine on the warm and dry side, and Douglas-fir on the damper and cooler side. Both kinds of trees are tall with needles, but they are very different in their lifecycles and their needs.

The mismatch of vegetation, of course, means that the two slopes will have completely different mixes of animals. Each has its own blend of insects, birds, and mammals, suited to the specific conditions of that place. We don't just have two hillsides -- we have two unique habitats, two distinctive ecosystems.

"The world is inherently relational." That's easy to see in the Colorado mountains, where the relationship between sunshine and moisture and vegetation and wildlife creates a wide variety in the communities of relationships. Each place has its own dynamic interplay of climate, of soil formation, of predators and prey, and of fire.

Those ecological relationships can be described scientifically. It is not hard to measure the differences in soil moisture, and biological inventories will catalogue the characteristic mix of species in each spot -- shrub land and forests, and meadows and stream sides, and the tundra of the high peaks.

A theological affirmation of the diverse ecosystems celebrates the rightness of those communities of life, living in balanced and subtle relationships. From a faith perspective, we not only notice the fact of diversity, but also affirm that the ecological interplay is how God's creation is supposed to work. We can echo the recurring language of Genesis 1: "It is good."

This inherently relational world also offers guidance for public policy and political issues. To briefly name just one issue that is illuminated by today's example of damp and dry hillsides in Colorado, ecological relationships must be recognized as we consider wildfires.

Fire is essential in maintaining healthy forests, with all of their ecological diversity. But fire behaves very differently in various types of forests. Ponderosa pine forests need frequent, low-intensity fires burning at ground level to be healthy. The Lodgepole pine forests of the high mountains, though, need very rare but high-intensity fires -- new trees can't sprout and grow without that scorching heat. And in areas with grasses and scrub growth, periodic fires keep trees from moving in.

This fall, we've seen devastating wildfires in California. A simplistic response has been to blame bad forest management. (The President even said that about the fires near Los Angeles, which were not in forests at all.) It is impossible to manage forests appropriately without considering all of the ecological and relational factors. What kinds of trees are they? What kinds of fire do they need to flourish? Is this a damp year when controlled burns can be used effectively, or is it a drought where fires are harder to control?

Ecologically, too, forest management is a much more complicated task than fire suppression. Cutting down a lot of the trees can reduce the fire danger (or increase it, if done badly), but a forest without most of the trees is no longer a healthy ecosystem. A fire-safe forest isn't a livable habitat for many of the species of plants and animals that also live there. "Forest management" has to be ecologically aware in a world that is inherently relational.

Species -- plants and animals, endangered or otherwise -- have to be considered within an ecological context. It is not realistic or honest or ethically responsible to consider any species as an isolated thing.

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I claimed the five words to center my thoughts in 2018 because of the political reality of this year. In January of 2018, I quoted myself from January of 2017, just before the Trump administration entered office.

Speaking broadly, I see in those political circles a propensity to value individuals over communities, to see the natural world as resources instead of ecological systems, and to disregard the scientific evidence of the climate crisis. I find it hard to imagine how such a distorted view of God's creation can lead to policies that lead to the common good and to ecological health.

In the face of the relentless drive of this administration to reduce regulations and to exploit resources -- combined with an apparent lack of understanding of ecological realities -- we do need to keep naming the bedrock truth that "the world is inherently relational." We have to insist that public policy recognizes the scientific and theological truth of an ecological world.

The irrefutable truth of a relational world has turned up explicitly in Eco-Justice Notes frequently this year (for example: Lichen and Theology, Pentecost and Endangered Species, Surface and Systems, and The Most Ecological Psalm). I promise that Eco-Justice Ministries will keep naming this truth. I encourage you to bring it into your spirituality and your advocacy.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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