Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Locating the Problem
distributed 3/17/06 & 4/3/09 - ©2006, 2009

People ask me, what can we do? What can we do -- in our homes, our offices, our churches, our communities, our nation -- to solve the environmental problem? Sometimes I refuse to answer their question.

If you want to be picky about it, there isn't an "environmental problem." There's an environmental crisis, but the problem is not with "the environment."

Most of the people who raise the question, though, don't want to be picky about it. They care deeply about God's creation, and they grieve when they see what is happening to it. They want to know about real, immediate and practical actions that will make a difference. They don't want to spend an hour or two discussing semantics.

So, I usually tune into the spirit of the question, and discuss effective strategies and proven behaviors. But today, my friends, we get to explore the semantics and look at the deeper issues. I promise that it won't take an hour or two.

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"Locating the problem" determines how a question is asked, and what sort of solutions are tried. "Locating the problem" defines where we think things have to change if anything is going to change. That's true on a personal level, and on a societal scale.

For instance (it's confession time!), my office is chronically cluttered. There are always piles of paper for projects that are in the works, stacks of articles that I haven't read yet, and lots of other stuff that isn't put away.

I explain, to myself and to others, that "I'm a piler, not a filer." But periodically, when things get really out of hand, I admit that I have a problem with organization. I get out the manila folders and turn those piles of paper into files. I put the masking tape and markers back into the drawer. I'll spend many hours re-creating order and systems. For a day or two after that, people who walk by my office will stop at the door and ask, "what happened to all the stuff?"

Facing up to my organizational problem can motivate me to file and store things. That's helpful. But it is revealing that the clutter always returns within a week. That's an indicator that I'm not really locating the problem correctly.

I need to admit the deeper truth. I don't have an organizational problem. I have too much stuff. The magazines and newsletters, newspaper clippings, old letters and other papers don't need a better way to be filed. They need to be thrown out.

Locating the problem, phrasing the question, makes all the difference in what solutions are considered. As I try to clean my office, "how do I organize this stuff?" gives a completely different answer than "what stuff do I need?"

If I locate the problem in the realm of organization and storage, a trip to the office supply store for more equipment will fix it. If the problem is in my unwillingness to part with a piece of paper, then going for office supplies only makes things worse by reinforcing my compulsion to keep everything.

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During the US civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, it was fairly common to hear the racial tensions and justice struggles referred to as "the Negro problem." For many of the people who used that language, it was a very accurate expression of the situation. To solve the problem, the changes -- they believed -- needed to come from African-Americans. The problem was that black folk needed to integrate into mainstream, white, US society. To solve the problem, it was people of color who needed to change.

In 1965, Ebony Magazine published a special issue titled, "The White Problem in America." The magazine's editor wrote, "For more than a decade ... the white man has been trying to solve the race problem through studying the Negro. We feel that the answer lies in a more thorough study of the man who created the problem."

It was a life-changing experience for me when I came to understand institutional racism in the US as "a white problem." Locating the problem differently turned around the place to look for change. To fix "the race problem," I came to see how it is necessary to deal with the exclusionary values and standards of white society. Change was needed in the laws and other power structures of the dominant culture.

In today's world, we have an ecological crisis, but we don't have an environmental problem. "The environment" doesn't need to change to make things better. The environment is doing pretty much what it should be expected to do in the face of current impacts. We shouldn't be blaming species for going extinct, or rivers for being polluted, or the climate for warming.

What we have is a human problem. Humanity -- over-consumptive, over-populated, self-centered humanity -- needs to change if we're going to fix the environmental mess.

Many of the practical, effective things that are named as solutions to "the environmental problem" are like the solution of filing papers for my "organizational problem." They're helpful and appropriate as one piece of the solution, but they don't get to the core.

Yes, we need hybrid cars and renewable energy and organic food and recycling programs. But much more importantly, we need to change the way that we, as humans in affluent and technological societies, participate in God's creation. We need to come to very different understandings about our own identity. We need to start asking how we solve the human problem that is expressed in environmental destruction.

Locating the problem within ourselves suggests a whole different set of responses. We need to critique the entire premise of consumer society. We have to give up the ideology of growth and the belief that we can always have more. We need to see ourselves as a part of the natural world, instead of separate from it. We need to learn from the natural world about interconnected ecological relationships, instead of thinking about the isolated "things" of resources and waste.

If there's an "environmental problem," then most of the solution will come from the experts who know how to study and manipulate the environment. But if we have a human problem, we need to look to the experts in what it means to be human as a part of God's creation. That means that religious institutions -- including churches -- need to be key players in solving this problem.

I urge you to take the ecological crisis seriously enough so that you take the time and energy to properly locate the problem, and redefine the questions. It is only when we locate the problem correctly that we stand a chance of solving the problem.

"We cannot solve the problems that we have created with the same thinking that created them." -- Albert Einstein


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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