Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Dirty Words
distributed 6/23/06 - ©2006

I've been using a new approach recently when starting conversations about religion and ecology. You may find it helpful and interesting, too.

At some point early in the discussion, I ask people to tell me how they usually describe the environment, both when it is in good shape, and when it is not. What adjectives or descriptive phrases do they use? The responses give me a very quick first indicator of the interests and perspectives of the folk that I'm talking to.

The answers that I hear most often fall into two clusters, two fairly distinctive categories.

  • Many people use words like clean and dirty, polluted and pristine.
  • Others talk about the environment as healthy or damaged, hurting or thriving.
What terms do you tend to use? Which cluster of words feels most comfortable and vivid to you? And please let me know if you have a substantially different way of describing the environment.

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A year ago, I wrote about Surface and Systems as two different ways of relating to the natural world. Drawing on a major study by the Sierra Club, that column described two ways in which people can "love nature." To put it very briefly, the "surface" approach sees the world as a collection of things, while the "system" approach sees a set of relationships.

My new discussion-starter question is a way of teasing out which of those two perspectives is dominant in the person or group that I'm talking to.

  • If they volunteer words like healthy, damaged or thriving, it is clear that they see the environment as an active system, in which various parts of the world interact with each other, and on which humans have complex impacts.
  • The other set of words -- polluted or pristine -- are especially strong indicators of a "nature as surface" perspective. Because "system" people often use this language, too, though, a follow-up question allows me to clarify whether they would find terms like healthy and thriving to be meaningful.
I find it helpful to learn about the perspectives present within a group, because surface and system people are concerned about very different environmental problems, and they often have a hard time understanding discussions from the other approach. Clarifying the perspectives can prevent some miscommunication.

In recent months, I've become especially aware of that difficulty in communication between two strong constituencies within the broad environmental movement. There is an ongoing confusion, and even distrust, between some "big picture" eco-justice advocates -- whose concerns about global warming and habitat preservation deal with sustaining the fragile web of life -- and environmental justice advocates.

The environmental justice movement is concerned with the disproportionate impacts of environmental problems on specific human communities, as those are identified in terms of race, ethnicity or income. (See an expanded discussion of environmental justice in A Roll of the Dice.) Their justice concerns are activated when toxic waste facilities are located far more often in communities of color than in majority white neighborhoods, or when Latino farm workers are exposed to dangerous agricultural chemicals at a far higher rate than Anglo populations. So, too, statistical studies in the US show that there are disproportionate impacts on poor and minority communities from lead and mercury contamination, and with the asthma-causing fumes from diesel exhaust.

Not surprisingly, environmental justice advocates are highly aware of various kinds of human-generated contamination. As a result, they lean very strongly toward a "nature as surface" approach where the environment is seen as a place where pollution accumulates, and from which those hazards come back to cause harm to specific groups of people.

Environmental justice folk, who experience nature as surface, can have a very hard time understanding the perspectives and motivation of those who are working to save the whales and trees and glaciers. Those concerns with the other-than-human parts of God's creation can come across as elitist, and uncaring about human suffering. From the other side, the eco-justice advocates who perceive the web of life as a threatened system can misunderstand the focus and concerns of those who concentrate solely on justice issues within the built environment of cities and farms.

Without addressing the differences in experience and perspective between these two types of activists, misunderstandings and hurt feelings are likely to occur.

As a way of heading off those confusions, I'm discovering that asking people how they describe the environment is faster and far less threatening than asking for a detailed definition of what they mean by "the environment." Watching for the way a few adjectives are used can provide valuable insights into the worldview and experience of others in a conversation.

Watching for the use of words is also helpful when conversations can't take place. When I was doing some reading in the environmental justice literature, I noticed that the environment was almost always portrayed in passive terms -- as a surface or a container -- rather than as a living system. In several hundred pages of reading from numerous authors, there were only one or two occasions when I saw active adjectives such as healthy or hurting. That linguistic insight helped me to clarify the philosophical perspectives supporting the environmental justice writing.

In the important work to care for all of God's creation, we can't afford to be sidetracked by avoidable misunderstandings. Let's listen carefully, and without judgement, to be aware of the difference between words like clean and healthy.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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