Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Fragile or Robust?
distributed 10/7/05 - ©2005

The phrase, "like a bull in a china shop" evokes vivid images of widespread destruction. The first encounter of El Torro with a display shelf is enough to make the shopkeeper cringe, but it gets worse. The crash of breaking dishes startles the constrained creature, and its nervous response triggers even more toppling of tea cups -- a self-reinforcing effect that techie-types call "a feedback loop." Utter devastation ensues.

A flurry of rambunctious bovine activity doesn't have the same effect if it happens in an open pasture. A shake of the head and a kick of the hooves may toss a clod of dirt and startle a few chipmunks, but things settle down pretty quickly, and no harm is done.

It is the setting that makes all the difference. One place is fragile, and the other holds up just fine in the face of the bull's behavior.

OK -- that's pretty self-evident. So take the metaphor, and put humanity in place of the bull. Then the question becomes, what sort of setting are we living in? Is the Earth fragile like the china shop, or durable like the pasture?

That question was a recurring theme at an environmental conference last weekend sponsored by the Wyoming Association of Churches. In my presentation, I had named the polarity of a fragile or robust Earth as one of the core assumptions that shape our environmental actions. My passing reference to that topic stuck in people's minds, and stirred up a surprising amount of conversation in the next day's workshops.

What I heard -- and what I didn't hear -- last weekend shows that there is a fascinating range of perspectives that people bring to this ecological question. The conversations that took place show me that it is informative, fruitful, and perhaps even essential to explore this grounding assumption in ourselves and our communities.

I did not hear anyone last weekend express the "have no fear" option, the one that suggests that we can't do any real harm. I have encountered that stance in other debates, though -- especially from people who are not concerned about climate change -- when they assert that the Earth is so big that humans could never have any real impacts on it. Like the bull in an open pasture, or a 2-year-old kicking at an adult, they say that the hurt that humanity can inflict is pretty trivial compared to the strength of the robust Earth.

I think everybody at last week's gathering acknowledged the power of human impacts, both locally and globally, but there was no unanimity in the group about what that means.

  • One of the speakers is a cattle rancher who is developing innovative approaches for raising organic beef in an ecologically sensitive operation. Tony had a marvelous set of hands-on examples about ranching in close relationship with natural systems. He lives from a deep sense that we can have a fairly strong human presence without damage if don't try to impose total control, and allow nature to do its own thing. Tony tends toward the durable, and isn't going to be too easily panicked about impending disasters.

  • A high school student, trained in the ethics of low-impact backpacking in the fragile ecosystems of high mountain wilderness, did a brilliant presentation using the "Leave No Trace" camping guidelines as rules of thumb for the larger culture. Zach's perspective is more cautious, and recognizes that unrestrained humanity can cause serious damage.

  • Laurel had recently traveled to the San Juan Basin in northern New Mexico, which she described as a "sacrifice zone" in the frantic quest for natural gas. Roads and pipelines rip across the countryside, and wells spill polluted water. She warned that central Wyoming will soon see that sort of gas exploration, and raised fears about the long-term damage that will happen unless significant controls are imposed on drilling operations. She leans toward the fragility of western grasslands.

  • Ruah spoke of the incredible relationships that have evolved within an intimately interconnected world. She described a flower that is perfectly tuned to a specific type of bee, so that particular insect's size and weight cause a flexing of the blossom which dusts pollen onto the bee. Her notions of the web of life see a delicacy and fragility among the myriad interconnected parts, and recognizes the amplifying danger of feedback loops.

  • Fragile and resilient were merged in the comments of a pastor who finds great meaning in the 13 billion year story of our evolving universe. Yes, the current balance of life is fragile and easily changed, but life is creative and persistent. No matter what humanity does to the planet, even if we wipe ourselves and other species off the face of the Earth, life will go on. From that long perspective, he questioned the self-centered ethics of assuming that we need to preserve this particular balance of life.
The urgency that we bring to our environmental activism -- or the lack thereof -- is closely tied to the anxiety we feel about humanity's ability to cause damage to the Earth and its inhabitants. I'm inclined to advocate for dramatic actions because I see the Earth's systems as delicately balanced and easily broken. And I have a hard time understanding, or communicating with, those who see the system as inherently durable and resilient.

We don't often stop to consider our own core assumptions, or those of the folk that we're talking to. I encourage you to reflect on your own beliefs about the Earth as fragile or robust. Join in conversation with your family, neighbors, colleagues and church family. Delving into this question can help us understand the motivations and decisions of others, and can help us communicate our own views more accurately and persuasively.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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