Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Sticks in the Mud
distributed 8/12/05 - ©2005

Daniel Quinn uses a graphic metaphor to explain the failure of so many well-intentioned attempts to solve social and environmental problems. He speaks of "sticks planted in the mud of a river to impede its flow."

Quinn -- the author of Ishmael and several other philosophical novels -- has a deeply ecological agenda in his writings, and he has a very creative way of presenting that message. The "sticks in the mud" image is one that he uses often.

Quinn describes the flowing river that is at the heart of this metaphor as "the river of vision." My sociological background labels it as our culture's "social construction of reality" with all of its assumptions about what is normal, rational and desirable. A society's broad conceptions of "progress" and "success" are defined by this river of vision. These concepts are so ingrained in a culture that they are largely invisible.

Quinn then writes of "programs" -- organized campaigns against poverty, crime, or ecological destruction -- as those sticks in the mud of the river of vision. While such programs do impede the river's flow a little, they can never stop the flow, and they never turn the river aside.

Quinn notes -- somewhat simplistically -- that nobody ever had to create a "program" to make western, technological culture "successful." The spread of our individualistic, materialistic culture happened because it is part of the "river of vision." From within the culture, at least, it all seemed natural and inevitable and good.

Problem-solving "programs" will fail, says Quinn, because they are designed to work against some negative effect of a society's deepest vision, but without changing or challenging the underlying perspectives that create the problem.

Such "programs" might work to resolve a minor problem in a society. But they can never bring about a profound or a revolutionary change.

+     +     +     +     +

I've been thinking about "sticks planted in the mud of a river" recently in relation to an impending legislative battle in the US. This fall will probably see at least one major piece of legislation to dramatically weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

I'll be writing again soon about the ESA, and the need to lobby hard to presere a strong act. Even as I affirm the ESA as an essential and effective piece of legislation, though, the sticks-in-the-river metaphor speaks to the inherent limitations of the ESA.

Most of those causes of species extinction fit comfortably within our society's notions of "progress." Things that we consider perfectly normal (the human use of nature for our own purposes, and a view of the world that sees isolated things instead of a web of life), or that are celebrated as God-given rights (private property and personal freedom), or that we seek as a matter of public policy (ever-rising levels of affluence and material wealth) lie behind the loss of other species. There are species at risk of extinction precisely because of things that we assume and hold most dear, precisely because of ideas that are driving forces in the "river of vision."

And so the Endangered Species Act is a "stick in the river" -- one that is large enough that it appears like a whole tree lying in the stream, creating major turbulence -- but the river of vision keeps pushing on around the snag. The ESA is an important tool in the fight to stave of extinction, but it will never be able to stop or reverse the problem.

"Programs" like the ESA or the Kyoto Protocols to address global warming -- and countless others like them -- are essential, but they are defensive actions. They can slow or slightly divert the relentless stream of "progress," but they alone can't reverse the direction of "the river of vision."

For the long haul, if we want to preserve the biological diversity of the Earth, if we want to minimize the disastrous effect of global warming, if we want to stop the depletion of natural resources, then we need to claim a totally different vision. We need a river of vision that we love and affirm, instead of one that we must try to hold back because it is violating our planet and threatening our survival.

+     +     +     +     +

I am often asked by clergy and lay leaders, "what can we do?" I think that those church leaders are usually looking for "programs" that they can implement in their congregations -- recycling projects, or energy-efficiency efforts, or legislative advocacy. I affirm those specific steps, and do what I can to help churches do them well. But more importantly, I always stress that churches can, and must, lift up a whole different vision for our society. Like Quinn, I know that "programs" can only go so far, and that real transformation and healing must grow from claiming a different vision.

Eco-Justice Ministries calls on churches to lift up the biblical vision of shalom as a healing option to our culture's ingrained definitions of progress and success. This profound and hopeful vision from our biblical heritage encompasses all of creation, affirms sufficiency instead of excess, calls us to community instead of isolated individualism, and seeks justice and wholeness on a thriving Earth.

If we begin to claim shalom as our guiding vision, then different choices become "natural" and "inevitable." If we float on the river of shalom, then the preservation of species is seen as a part of our success, and not a complicated burden to be negotiated.

Churches are a setting where we should analyze the deepest visions that shape our collective lives. We will be most faithful, and we will be most transformative, when our ethical deliberation goes beyond programs and policies -- beyond sticks in the river -- and when we name the comprehensive and hopeful vision of God's shalom.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form