Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Surface and Systems
distributed 6/24/05 & 2/19/10 - ©2005, 2010

I love it when my good friend Ted gets going on one of his favorite rants. All he needs to set him off is an SUV with an environmentalist bumper sticker.

Then we're treated to a passionate, free-flowing, humorous and biting diatribe about those horrible people who claim to love nature and yet destroy it with their frequent trips to the mountains, their vacation homes, and their gas-guzzling behemoths.

It is great fun, but Ted's screaming at "those people" doesn't build a lot of understanding, or go very far in determining how we might get them to behave differently. Assuming the Hummer driver with a Wilderness Society sticker is sincere, how do we make sense out of -- what is for Ted and me -- a glaring contradiction? A detailed study -- unfortunately unpublished -- is helpful.

In 2004, I heard a presentation on an extensive public research project that was conducted by the Sierra Club. It probed far deeper than the "opinion polls" that are actually trying to encourage people in the cause (Do you consider yourself an environmentalist? Do you want clean air and water?). This one used a variety of research tools to understand some of the core beliefs and motivations of people in the US.

One detail of their findings has become very important to me, because it explains the sort of discontinuities that Ted rails against, and suggests appropriate strategies for change.

The researchers defined two broad groups based on their approaches to the natural world. In the report's terms, there are those who see "nature as surface" and those who see "nature as system."

The "nature as surface" group looks at the natural world the same way that they would look at a beautiful painting -- as a lovely thing to be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities. That "thing" is seen as a fairly simple collection of objects -- mountains and trees, or sand and waves. There's very little awareness about the details of those objects, the species of trees, for example, and the way the trees are shaped by soil, weather and wildlife.

The "nature as system" group sees the natural world as a complex web of relationships. They are aware of the interconnections between all of the elements of the setting, even those that are largely invisible at first glance, and those that reach far in space and time.

The objects of Ted's ire most likely are in the "nature as surface" crowd. They do, indeed, love nature. They love to go see the stunning beauty of the natural world. They love it so much, in fact, that some of them build a huge second home in the midst of the mountains, and drive their SUV up there every weekend so that they can be close to the beauty.

Ted and I (firmly entrenched in the "nature as system" perspective) are painfully aware of the ways in which those weekend residents of the mountains fragment habitat, disturb wildlife, deplete streams, and pollute the air. The sort of nature that we understand is damaged, even destroyed, by those who only see a charming scene of natural beauty.

The Sierra Club research points out that the "nature as surface" folk don't tend to understand the ways in which the Colorado mountains serve as essential watersheds. They are inclined to see bears and mountain lions as intruders. Because they perceive a set of objects, and not a dynamic system, they genuinely do not understand their own impacts on nature, or the need to preserve all of the elements of the system.

This new research opens up important insights for us. Our challenge is not to get people to "love nature" -- because those in both groups sincerely do. Our task is to help those who love nature's surface beauty to see more deeply, so that they may begin to understand and appreciate the complex systems of the natural world. That awareness of systems will lead toward a desire to protect and sustain those dynamic relationships.

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Since Eco-Justice Notes is targeted for a churchy audience, let me be very explicit in connecting this surface/system distinction to our church life.

A very large part of our attention to nature in worship and spirituality falls into the "surface" approach. When we read the Psalms, we sing our hymns, and use beautiful pictures to move us toward devotion, we generally take a shallow approach to nature.

We may, perhaps, be inspired to awe by the majestic God who created the broad sweep of the oceans and the soaring mountain peaks. We may be moved to an appreciation of creation's beauty at an emotional level -- which is certainly more faithful than a purely utilitarian emphasis on nature as a pool of resources to be tapped for human use.

But rarely does our liturgy, hymnody, and devotional literature name and celebrate the complex ecological relationships of our world. If "nature as surface" is the only message about God's creation that people hear in church, then they will never understand the importance of endangered species, or the preservation of migration pathways, or constraints on urban sprawl -- and certainly not as a matter of faith.

The path to a spirituality that is intimately aware of nature's systems may be long, but the first steps on that path are not hard to take. In your own devotional life, and in your roles of church leadership, simply push one layer deeper into the systems that sustain us.

Give thanks for the water we drink, and for the wetlands that filter it. Give thanks for the fruit that we eat, and for the bees that pollenated the flowers. Lift up the wonders of seasonal migration as an essential part of the web of life. Pray for the mangroves and coral reefs that are the breeding grounds for so much ocean life.

Those simple steps will help us praise the God who creates dynamic and ever-renewing systems. In that sort of praise, we will be moved toward ecological sustainability as a core part of our faith and ethics.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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