Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Subvert the Dominant Paradigm
distributed 6/18/04 - ©2004

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"Subvert the dominant paradigm" is a message that appears on bumper stickers, t-shirts and coffee mugs. It strikes me as a slogan coined by a philosopher, not an activist. (And to my readers who are both philosophers and activists: yes, I do know that those roles are not polar opposites.)

There's a tongue-in-cheek sense in which the intellectual language of the slogan contrasts with the direct phrasing of most activist imperatives. Anybody can grasp the sense of "Stop the war!" In the paradigm message, "the" is the only one of the four words that doesn't need some careful study and interpretation to be meaningful.

And "subverting" is different from the specific goals of a community organizer. A classic activist is looking for a visible "win" on a clear-cut issue. Subverting raises doubts quietly, indirectly, and in the background. It is not a project with a clearly achievable result. How can you measure your progress in subverting the dominant paradigm? How will you know when the job is done? Or will it ever be accomplished?

"Subvert the dominant paradigm" is a different sort of message than "Call your senator about the energy bill" or "Buy fair trade coffee." Subverting calls us into a long-term, diffuse movement for social change. It is a project which is far broader than the agenda of issue activism.

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In his 1992 book, "Earth in the Balance" Al Gore describes the heart of our problem as a collision between modern industrial civilization and the planet's ecological system. He writes that those who are working for change and healing are up against "nothing less than the current logic of world civilization. As long as civilization as a whole, with its vast technological power, continues to follow a pattern of thinking that encourages the domination and exploitation of the natural world for short-term gains, this juggernaut will continue to devastate the earth no matter want any of us does."

"The current logic of world civilization" -- "The dominant paradigm." Those are not matters which can be changed by a vote of Congress, or by installing compact florescent light bulbs. But legislation and local efforts at energy efficiency do begin to shape -- to strengthen or subvert -- our paradigms and our worldviews. Philosophy and activism are intertwined.

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Over the past several weeks, I have been engaged in a lot of reflection about the programming of Eco-Justice Ministries. I have joined in conversation and correspondence with many of our friends and colleagues. Last week, our Board of Directors had a special planning retreat to ponder these broad programming questions.

These discussions have been trying to discern the appropriate balance between two connected, yet distinctive, program directions. How much of our time, energy and resources should be directed toward practical change strategies, and how much should go toward changing worldviews?

Eco-Justice Ministries has programs on the practical side that are concrete and measurable. We do things that tie into the standard approaches of activism and community organizing. They include efforts to encourage and support our constituency in political advocacy, energy conservation, recycling, the use of fair trade products, and education about the myriad specific issues that we face. The practical approaches provide lots of answers to the common question, "What can we do?"

The worldview approach is far more nebulous. Its focus is not so much on "doing" as on "being" -- although a genuine shift in worldview will cause profound changes in behavior. Defining, claiming, and living out of a different worldview is a way of "subverting the dominant paradigm." As an example of our programming in this area, many of these weekly "Notes" lift up a fresh way of seeing the world, without naming specific actions for the reader to take. Sermons and some educational resources lean more toward the worldview side.

In our work with churches, Eco-Justice Ministries will always have some blend of practical strategies and "subverting the dominant paradigm." In the historic language of the Christian church, we will engage both "faith and works," knowing that both are essential in shaping how we live.

This summer, as Eco-Justice Ministries observes its fourth anniversary, we're taking a fresh look at how to balance those two approaches. We're redefining and shaping our programming, so that we can be -- in the words of our mission statement -- "faithful, relevant and effective in working toward social justice and environmental sustainability."

As we go about that task of discernment, we would appreciate your insights and comments. We invite you to give us a call (303-715-3873) or drop us a note to share your perspectives.

  • Which part of the mix seems most essential to you? If you had to pick between doing issue activism and transforming worldviews, which would you choose?

  • In your own life, your own church, your own eco-justice work, how have you balanced those approaches? What has been effective, and what has been fulfilling?

  • If the programming and resources from Eco-Justice Ministries were to lean strongly on one direction or the other, which approach would you find most compelling and worthwhile for your congregation, or your personal use?
Your thoughts and experiences are valuable to us as we evaluate our ministry.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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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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