The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
A Part Of / Apart From
Last week, I asked for your feedback on a very big question.
I'd raised the idea that the climate crisis is not one of a multitude of discrete problems to be solved, but is better seen as a symptom of our culture's broken and confused relationship with the natural world. Transformational change -- a dramatic shift of values and worldviews -- is necessary to realign those relationships. At the end of Too Much Attention to Climate?, I asked:
Do you see an emphasis on transformational change as hopeful, or as a dangerous distraction? Does a deep dive into our cultural values and beliefs give us insights and tools for profound and rapid change? Or does an exploration into transformational values feel like it will slow down or distract current political and public actions to address the climate crisis?
Almost 40 people have responded to my request for feedback. Some gave very short responses, and some offered extended comments. All were thoughtful and helpful. (You can still reply to last week's question, by the way.) I hope to post a summary of the responses soon.
Almost everybody affirmed that transformation is important, but there were differences of opinion about whether such an approach is strategically relevant in this time of urgent crisis. I also saw some variety in whether transformation was seen as an individual or a social process.
As a number of people pointed out, a sharp division between "transformation" and "activism" is both simplistic and counter-productive. There are areas of overlap and interaction between those two strategic approaches, and both are needed.
Indeed, my larger perspective -- which I rarely get to develop in the relatively short format of Eco-Justice Notes -- says that a transformation of values and worldviews must then inform and motivate fresh and creative efforts at political, economic and social change. If transformation happens only in our hearts and heads, and is not also embodied in effective change, then it is only worthless navel gazing.
I deeply appreciate the thoughts and insights that many of you have shared with me in the last week. I expect to be returning to this topic with some frequency, especially as you're helping me to clarify my thinking, and my forms of communication. Thank you!
For today, I'm going to draw together two pieces from those responses to look at one particular area of possible transformation. As I push on this theme, I continue to ask for your feedback.
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David Turner, the pastor of Church of the Crossroads in Honolulu, Hawaii, wrote this pithy and memorable comment.
At the root of the problems we face is, indeed, a system that has seen ourselves as "apart from" God's Creation as opposed to being "a part of" God's Creation. In that simple distinction we have allowed ourselves, amongst many other false ways of being, to treat the creation as a resource simply for our utilization, we have not given the entirety of the Creation true intrinsic value.
I'd add to David's comment that some forms of well-intentioned environmental engagement also may be built on the same "apart from" perspective. Some expressions of environmental stewardship, for example, are founded on the notion that humans are called to manage the world. Whether we see creation as a resource for our utilization and profit, or as a realm of things to be managed faithfully, humans still are defined as "apart from" the rest of creation.
Another friend sent a link to a significant new article, Climate Change and Our Emerging Cultural Shift, by Andrew J. Hoffman, a professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. Fairly early on in the lengthy article, Hoffman writes,
We as a society can only fully address climate change when it is reflected in our deepest values about who we are and how we should live. In short, it must be embedded in our religious and philosophical values -- values that organize how we see the world, even if they're implicit. That will take work and effort, a lot of effort. But anything short of changing our beliefs will fall short of addressing the full scope of the climate challenge. ... Building a livable world requires a new understanding of our species' role on Earth.
Hoffman looks back to the Enlightenment (1685 to 1815) which brought about the Age of Reason and exalted the human ability to understand and control the world around us. He now calls for a Re-Enlightenment. "Instead of viewing nature as simply a resource or waste sink for our own benefit, we will find ways to see the value it possesses beyond human utility and efficiency."
Part of that Re-Enlightenment, he writes, involves asking questions that quantitative science and monetary economics cannot answer, but where philosophy, theology, the humanities, and the social sciences can help. "What is life; what is beauty; what is love; why does music or art touch us so deeply; what is right and just; how much is enough and sufficient to make us happy and fulfilled? These questions reside in the domain of what makes life worth living and all are difficult terrain for quantitative, logical science."
I'd say that Hoffman poses transformational questions. They are transformational precisely because they are largely absent from the standard policy discussions about climate options. When business-as-usual is incapable of considering intergenerational justice or the inherent worth of species, and when business-as-usual assumes that humans have the wisdom and the right to shape the world around us, then asking different categories of questions does transform the conversation.
Hoffman is optimistic that this Re-Enlightenment is already underway. He points to the Pope's encyclical, Laudato Si', and the parallel documents from the Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions, as expressing new ways of being in the world, a genuine shift in values and beliefs that can lead us into new options for the future. I will add a hopeful sense that many transformational ideas are being considered in some discussions about a Green New Deal, and in the demands of the current youth-led climate strikes. These changes are being embodied around us and among us, and they are starting to impact institutions and policies.
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Albert Einstein said, "We cannot solve the problems that we have created with the same thinking that created them."
We are facing multiple crises in today's world because the dominant way of thinking does not conform to how the world really works. One of the primary flaws of that way of thinking is that it considers humanity to be "apart from" Creation, instead of being "a part of" Creation.
In Laudato Si', Pope Francis called this error the technocratic paradigm. "This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object."
We cannot solve the problems that we have created under the technocratic paradigm with the same perspectives about a world of objects to be controlled. We cannot solve the climate crisis if we continue to propose solutions where humanity is "apart from" the ecological world.
We don't have the time to work through a leisurely, philosophical conversion of modernist thought. But we can insist that the still-emerging transformational perspectives be given strong consideration as we make societal decisions about how to address the climate crisis and other pressing issues.
The five demands of the youth-led climate strike in the US (a Green New Deal; respect of indigenous land and sovereignty; environmental justice; protection and restoration of biodiversity; and implementation of sustainable agriculture) provide a helpful model for how transformative perspectives can be an assertive part of urgent policy debates.
I continue to ask for your thoughts and feedback. From your experience and your perspective, how does transformative change fit with the urgency of the climate crisis?
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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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