Eco-Justice Ministries
   Eco-Justice: "the well-being of all humankind on a thriving Earth"

The Ecological Crisis as a Human Problem

In all of our programming, Eco-Justice Ministries addresses the global ecological crisis as a "human problem." We work with churches because we are convinced that religious communities are especially well-positioned to address that problem.

The passage that follows (with emphasis added) is from Peter Sawtell's chapter, The Shalom Principle, in the recent Sierra Club book, Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation. It describes an exercise that he often does with church groups which explains what we mean by the human problem, and why churches are important.

With a sheet of newsprint and some markers as my tools, I invite members of a discussion group to list the environmental issues they care about and hear about in the news. It does not take the participants long to create an extensive list. All the people in every church group that I've met with know something about a lot of issues, and they are deeply concerned.

They name clean air and clean water, global warming, and rainforests. They list toxic wastes, coral reefs, and the hole in the ozone. Urban sprawl, water shortages, soil erosion, spreading deserts, species extinction, overfished oceans, invasive species, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, mercury in fish, and lead paint in older housing are among the issues that go on the worksheet. Global issues share space with close-to-home concerns about a special place, a locally unique species, or a controversial community issue.

As the brainstorming goes on, we add details to some lines. A general concern about water expands to cover different causes of water pollution, the impact of dams and wells, worldwide shortages of fresh water, soil damaged by over-irrigation, and the new cultural foolishness of bottled water. Often the list starts to look like a web, as relationships between scattered topics become evident. Asthma-causing air pollution, toxic waste dumps, lead paint, and transportation issues are all linked to urban poverty. One person's comment about agriculture might encourage others to talk about the overuse of fertilizer, the health impacts of pesticides on farmworkers, sewage from factory farming, water for irrigation, farmland used for biofuels, and greenhouse gases emitted by belching cattle.

When the sheet of newsprint is filled, I call a stop, and we spend a few moments staring at the list, letting it all soak in. There's a stunned, painful silence as ordinary church people realize how much they know about the Earth's deep distress.

I reassure them that I didn't ask them to create the list to make them depressed. (“Too late!” someone usually shouts.) We created that long list of complex, interconnected issues, I say, so that we could become aware of a very basic lesson. When so many things are going wrong—when the problems are so big, so important, and so intertwined—we need a shift in our perspective. Rather than considering an overwhelming list of many discrete issues, I ask the people to take a larger view. With that shift to a broader perspective, we can see a different kind of problem, and a different kind of solution.

All the issues on the newsprint are just symptoms of one central, essential problem: humans are living out of whack with the Earth. In our modern industrial world, we are living in a distorted, dysfunctional relationship with the rest of creation. “We don't have environmental problems,” I say. “We have a human problem.”

Embedded in the governing mindset of our culture are fundamental flaws in how we understand our connections with the natural world. We have seen humanity as separate from the rest of creation. We have looked at the world as a storehouse of resources, rather than as a dynamic and interdependent system. We have been oblivious to the world's limits, both in what it can provide and in the abuse that it can absorb. We have arrogantly claimed the wisdom and power to manipulate the world, without an adequate understanding of the consequences. We have been selfishly fixated on our immediate wants and needs without considering future generations. Those sorts of misunderstandings are the basis for the issues listed on the newsprint.

Yes, there is much work to be done on technical matters like energy efficiency and pollution control. We do need to craft public policy and economic incentives. But if those changes in policy and technology are to take us genuine new directions, we will need to change our beliefs, our assumptions and our expectations. We need to claim a new way of living in relationship with the entire Earth community.

If we look for solutions primarily through technical fixes, then churches are going to be fringe players. If we seek the core solutions through detailed changes in public policy, it will be very hard to mobilize the politically diverse constituencies of congregations for advocacy and action.

But when we see the environmental crisis as a human problem, religious communities suddenly become very important. If we're struggling with a warped notion of humanity's place and purpose in creation, then faith communities have vast expertise in dealing with that problem.

In religious communities we know how to deal with the question of what it means to be human, and thus are superbly positioned to address the human problem at the heart of our current crisis. At the core of our mission, we focus on the meaning of life and on what really constitutes the good life. For centuries, we have been addressing relationships and community—not always getting the answers right, of course, but always circling around those themes. We deal with matters of justice and ethics. Perhaps most importantly, we claim to bring transformation to individuals, communities, and society, precisely by inviting people to adopt new understandings of our relationship with God, with the whole human family, and with the creation.

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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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