Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Circles and Lines
distributed 2/29/08 - ©2008

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Broadmoor Community Church, United Church of Christ, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

There are many reasons why Earth is in such widespread ecological crisis. One of them -- and a significant one -- is that modern human societies have developed a mistaken understanding of how the world really works.

At its very core, Earth depends on the cycling and recycling of nutrients and energy. Within natural systems, there really is no such thing as "waste". What is cast off or left behind in one setting is taken up by another as life-giving nourishment. For billions of years, this planet has recycled and reused all things.

Complex human societies, though, have lost touch with those renewing cycles. We look at what is around us from a perspective of lines, instead of circles. Perhaps because humans have the ability to create long-lasting things that break the cycles (pottery and glass and refined metals would be early examples), we look at the world in ways that are inherently un-natural.

Recovering a sense of cycles is an essential part of living more gently and more sustainably within the Earth community.

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Round and round and round. That's the way God made the world. That wisdom is at the core of our planet's long history of evolution and creation. It is how our world has been a thriving, life-sustaining place for billions and billions of years. Water, nutrients and energy go around and around in never-ending cycles.

In this marvelous world, the cycling of life is not accidental or incidental. It is built into the operating system of the planet. It is how things are -- how they must be if our world is to be healthy and vital.

Most of us know the basics of those cycles. Water falls as rain, flows into streams and lakes, or is taken up by plants. Then it evaporates, and falls again as precipitation. Around and around, the same water molecules spread across the planet.

A tree grows in the forest. When it dies, it falls over and the decaying wood renews the soil so that other plants can thrive. Round and round is not just nice, it is essential to life and health. The soil needs the trees just as much as the trees need the soil.

Humans, though, have come up with a different way of living with the things of this world. Rather than cycles, we have created lines. We have created stuff that is permanent, or deadly. We have created things that don't go back to feed and nourish life. And we have taken things which could be life-giving, and sealed it away as "garbage".

Instead of creating opportunities for the cycles of life to continue, we have viewed the world as grounded in linear processes. As Annie Leonard describes it in The Story of Stuff, "our stuff simply moves along these stages: extraction to production to distribution to consumption to disposal. All together, it's called the materials economy. ... The truth is it's a system in crisis. And the reason it is in crisis is that it is a linear system and we live on a finite planet and you can not run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely."

In this linear system, a tree is processed into paper pulp, which becomes a phone book, which gets dropped on your porch, sits by your phone for 6 months, and then gets sent to the dump when the next book arrives. Tree, to book, to garbage. The line stops there. That newsprint is sealed in a landfill where it will not decay for thousands of years.

This linear worldview creates waste -- lots of it. The Worldwatch Institute recently reported, "Every year we dig up and process more than half a trillion tons of raw materials -- and six months later more than 99 percent of it is waste."

It is clear that our worldview is distorted when we see even life-giving substances as garbage. A major educational campaign on "GrassCycling" seeks to convince homeowners that the grass clippings from their lawn are not "waste" to be bagged and sent to the dump. We need to teach people that simple truth only because we have such a seriously distorted understanding of how the world works.

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How does it help if we think in cycles instead of lines?

If we understand that all things will be part of those natural cycles -- immediately or eventually -- we'll be less inclined to create compounds that can't be absorbed and reused. We'll understand that nuclear waste and toxic chemicals are un-natural. We'll realize that releasing unprecedented quantities of carbon dioxide can break the cycles of renewal.

When we think of cycles instead of lines, we'll see new possibilities. Today's popular hybrid vehicles are efficient because they see the kinetic energy of a moving car as a resource to be reclaimed in charging batteries, rather than as waste to be dissipated through the brakes.

At most electrical generating plants, huge cooling towers are used to get rid of "waste" heat. New co-generation facilities take that excess heat and pass it along as valuable energy for other purposes -- such as manufacturing, or heating buildings. Similarly, businesses are rethinking ways in which the waste products of one process can become valuable resources for other businesses. For example, vegetable matter left after distilling ethanol (for fuel or beer) can, in limited quantities, be used for animal feed. What had been considered "waste" is a new resource.

The entire notion of recycling is a recovery of the eternal truth in natural cycles. Phone books, bottles and aluminum cans can be reprocessed and given new life, instead of being garbage destined for a dump. The "new" efforts to recycle instead of creating garbage are not new at all. They are ways to mimic one of the most basic processes of nature.

A linear view of the world which sees only resources and waste separates us from the life-giving cycles that are essential to our planet's health. Technological societies have damaged Earth's systems because we have forgotten how this world really works.

When we recover an appreciation for the complex cycles of nature -- when we affirm the circles of life that are inherent in God's creation -- then we will be able to live more gently and sustainably on this good Earth.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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