Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Conflicts About Calendars
distributed 12/30/05 - ©2005

There are many ways of observing the New Year's holiday -- fireworks, drunken parties, heartfelt resolutions, endless football games -- but one activity lies at the core of the occasion. Almost by definition, New Year's is the time to take down the old calendar, and put up a new one.

In preparation for that ritual, I just opened the box for my 2006 Sierra Club Wilderness Calendar, with its 12 stunning photographs to illustrate the months -- and an equally gorgeous cover picture. My new calendar will soon replace a comparable set of wilderness pictures from 2005's calendar.

As I page through those 26 beautiful photos, I'm reminded of an ongoing debate within the academic discussions of eco-theology, and within the environmental movement. My calendars exemplify the debate because -- in their whole two-year gallery of pictures -- there is no trace of humanity. There are those who have seriously questioned whether these sorts of pretty photographs convey the right message for our cause.

In these wilderness pictures, obviously, there won't be an urban skyline on the far horizon. No power lines stretch across the hillsides. There are no high-flying jets leaving contrails across these skies. And -- unlike the "wilderness" image so often seen in TV ads -- these desert buttes and placid lakeshores don't have an imposing SUV parked nearby.

It is not only any evidence of technology that is missing in these photos. In the wilderness scenes, there's no rugged backpacker striding into the forest. There's not even a trail for a backpacker to follow. No footprint mars the sand dunes or stream banks.

In the world of nature calendars -- and the lovely Sierra Club ones are only one example of the genre -- the full beauty of nature is ruined if people are present. Within this iconography, "nature" and humanity occupy completely different realms.

The ongoing debate questions the aesthetic assumption of the calendars. Is "nature" something that is utterly different from the human, or should we acknowledge the interconnections between the two? At its most challenging form, the question asks if it is even misleading to use language that conceptually separates "human" and "nature." Ethicist Larry Rasmussen wrote, "We could learn to speak, for example, not of humanity AND nature, but of humans IN and AS nature. ... We could acknowledge that humans never rise above nature, never transcend it."

The problem with these pictures is in the suggestion that nature is utterly disconnected from humanity. Even more dangerous is the flip side of that proposition: that humanity is not part of nature.

Theologian Sallie McFague looks at this kind of landscape photography as an expression of "the arrogant eye" which objectifies and dominates nature. It is a perspective where humanity stands outside of natural relationships. McFague contends that our arrogant viewpoint as a distant, detached outsider has made it easy for us to despoil the earth.

When we divide ourselves so thoroughly from nature, it is all too easy to objectify what isn't human, and to see nature as either a pretty scene or as a collection of resources. Nature becomes a "thing" to either enjoy or to use. When there is no hint of human engagement or relationship with the natural world, it is harder for us to see active and relational "subjects" in that world -- entities with their own purposes and goals, engaged in their own set of relationships and activities, and with their own intrinsic worth.

I'm not blaming nature photographers for creating the philosophical division. But these beautiful pictures express -- and can reinforce -- a long-standing and deep-seated consciousness of separation between nature and humanity.

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If we adopt the ideology epitomized by the nature calendar, there's a deceptive simplicity to many contentious public policy questions. A primary goal will be the preservation of pristine areas where an idealized nature is untouched by human influences. Other areas, already under human dominance, can be seen as "sacrifice zones" where less care is warranted. This is the perspective that has been rightly criticized as "elitist" and "uncaring" in preserving natural beauty while tolerating the pollution of human communities.

The challenge -- in both philosophy and policy -- is to acknowledge that humans are part of the natural world, and to discern how we might live appropriately as part of that community. Rather than having one set of rules for "nature" and other for humans, the same set of questions will apply in wilderness areas, farm fields and toxic dumps. How can the presence of humans work within the patterns and constraints of natural systems? When and how is it important to remove or reduce human impacts on a particular setting? How can the long-term needs of all parts of the community be respected?

That's the eco-justice challenge, which ties together the well-being of all humanity with the conditions needed for a thriving earth. When we know that "we're all in it together," when we recognize that we're all intertwined in the community of life, we're called to look broadly and deeply at our relationships and our responsibilities.

The 2006 Sierra Club calendar is about to be hung beside my desk. I will enjoy the beauty of those pictures, but I will also be challenged, every time I glance at it, to discern the dynamic ecological relationships within that scene, and the broader relationships that tie us all together as a community of life -- humans and the rest of creation together. May that be a challenge that we all adopt for every aspect of our lives.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

NOTE: Two other Eco-Justice Notes have dealt with related themes -- Surface or Systems and Where is Nature?.

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