Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Shake the Bottle
distributed 2/15/08 - ©2008

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Capitol Heights Presbyterian Church, in Denver, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Perhaps you know "The Ketchup Ditty":
        Shake and shake and shake the bottle.
        First none comes, and then a lot'l.

That little bit of doggerel is a helpful counterpoint to my musings last week about the technical definitions of "work" in the physical sciences. A short summary: Putting forth a lot of effort doesn't count. "Work" only happens when something moves. I drew the parallel that, in some churches, lots of effort is expended, but nothing "moves" in their environmental programs.

Several of our readers responded to my reflections, noting that they were all to familiar with the problem of small results from great efforts in their churches. Frustration and burnout are real possibilities when we don't see any accomplishments from our labors. Some readers also affirmed that a lot of "work" is achieved when moving a large institution even a very small distance, and that those changes are cause for celebration.

Showing that this problem is not unique to churches, a physician commented: "The medical analogy is the term 'dystocia'. It describes labor that doesn't progress to delivery in pregnancy. In medical training it's applied to the excessive efforts of senior medical students on rotation & interns who expend boundless amounts of energy to accomplish little in the way of observable results."

It seems that we're all familiar with small results from much effort. If we experience that frustration over and over again, it might be appropriate to concede defeat, and try other directions for change. Putting things in a larger perspective, though, Betsy offered wise words:

I think that sometimes a tremendous amount of effort has to be expended (whether you call it "work" or not) in our society, and in the faith community in particular, before entrenched patterns will change. When they do change, it can be a lot of movement -- a large shift in "consciousness" and/or accepted ways of doing things -- in a short time (as when the Berlin Wall came down or smoking in public spaces became taboo in the U.S.). These changes would not have happened if a lot of people hadn't expended a lot of effort over a long period of time without seeing any movement.

"Shake and shake and shake the bottle. First none comes, and then a lot'l." Very often, change -- whether physical, personal or social -- does not happen in a smooth, linear process. It comes in sudden jumps, with moments of great transition.

Here's an experiment that you can try at home. Take a large block of ice from the freezer and let it warm gradually. For a very long time almost nothing will happen. (At first, it might even grow as frost forms on the frigid surface.) Just a bit of water trickles down the sides. Finally, though, the core of the block gets to 32 degrees (on the odd Fahrenheit scale), and the ice melts away very quickly. Unfortunately, this tipping point for melting is not just a fun kitchen project. It is becoming all too evident with the rapid melting of ice and tundra in Earth's polar regions.

In the arena of social change, as Betsy pointed out, it is often the case that many people must put in great amounts of effort with little visible results before a sudden change will occur. One news story or one stirring sermon is usually not enough to motivate people to action. It takes repetition and reinforcement to build awareness and concern. Little seems to happen during that consciousness raising, but change will never happen without it. It is only when the influence works its way into the core that transformation occurs.

In the realm of politics, building a large constituency is an essential, and slow, process. Legislation is passed and elections won only when a plurality of voters take a stand. Many votes can be lost -- giving the appearance that nothing was accomplished -- while growing the necessary base of support for an eventual win.

The scientific definition of "work", of accomplishments, can be deceptive if we don't allow plenty of time for movement to occur.

+     +     +     +     +

So what distinguishes good long-term organizing from futile efforts? It seems to me that two key qualities are intentional strategies and persistence.

Persistence, keeping up a sustained effort, is more likely to bring results than a brief flurry of activity. That whole block of ice won't melt if it is only taken out of the freezer for an hour a week. So, too, environmental commitments are not likely to be deepened in a church when the topic is only raised in the annual Earth Day service. In our efforts to bring about change, we have to be willing to commit to the long haul. "Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching." (2 Timothy 4:2)

An intentional strategy toward defined goals shapes the way we act, so that we can have some confidence that our efforts are headed toward a cumulative impact. Some sense, even a partial one, of what is necessary to bring about eventual change will let us know if we're working in a plausible and effective direction.

If we know the temperature at which ice melts, we can measure if the frozen block is shifting toward that temperature. We might discover that breaking the block of ice into smaller pieces will speed the process. We can recognize that we're not making progress if somebody else keeps putting the thing back in the freezer.

In a legislative campaign, we can know if we're getting closer to a majority of people on our side -- or even if we're getting to a level that's starting to attract some media attention. Growing the margin is an indicator of progress, even if we're not wining yet. In a church environmental program, movement from blank stares to a shared feeling that "we talk about those things in our congregation" can be an indicator that continued efforts are worthwhile.

In your church and your community, take a hard look at your efforts to bring about change. Be willing to acknowledge cases where there is no movement at all, and where there is no prospect for change through your current approach. Don't waste your energy on those futile efforts. But also be willing to see how hard work can set in motion the necessary steps toward future transformation. Find hope and courage in even the smallest indicators of shifting awareness and changing behaviors.

"Shake and shake and shake the bottle." May we be persistent and intentional in our work to care for all of God's creation.


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