Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

A Million Voices
distributed 5/1/09 - ©2009

I've been pondering pronouns. To be specific, I've been pondering the profound difference between the singular "you" and the plural "we". I've been doing that persistently because I see far too many lists of "things you can do" to help the environment, and far too few lists about "things we can do" in that cause.

Even in the faith-based environmental movement, in the dedicated efforts taking place in churches and other religious communities, much of what I see is directed at the education of individuals, and at the steps that we can each take, on our own.

Now, those one-by-one sorts of things are important. We can each change light bulbs, and carry canvas shopping bags, and take shorter showers. We can each do our part by shopping locally, buying organic, and recycling.

On some level, of course, those individual actions do add up to a collective force. We can get organic products in the supermarket these days because a lot of us do buy them. Those consumer choices have changed retail economics. Cities have curbside recycling because a significant percentage of the residents use that service. But rarely do we approach the "things you can do" activities as components of an intentional social change movement.

The global ecological crisis is grounded in social and economic systems, institutional policies, and cultural values. To have a significant impact on those levels of our collective life, we need to build a stronger and more passionate environmental movement.

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My thinking about movements is informed by two songs, both stressing the power of coordinated collective actions.

The first will be familiar to Baby Boomers, although perhaps not well known to those of younger generations. It is the long, rambling ballad by Arlo Guthrie, Alice's Restaurant. I won't attempt to summarize the silly story line, but it ends with a proposal for singing the chorus of the song as an act of resistance to the Viet Nam era military draft. As Arlo describes the scene at military induction centers:

You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he's really sick and they won't take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they're both faggots and they won't take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin' a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. They may think it's an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singin' a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may think it's a movement.

One or two people are just odd. The collective action of fifty people a day, singing to challenge the system, has the power to end a war.

The other song is a lovely and moving piece by Don Eaton, I Am One Voice. For each of the six verses, the first sentence is repeated three times; the last sentence is sung once. The first and last verses are often done by a solo singer, with others joining in as the song progresses:

1. I am one voice, and I am singing. I am not alone.
2. We are two voices, we are singing. We are not alone.
3. We are a hundred voices singing. We are not alone.
4. We are a thousand voices singing. We are not alone.
5. We are a million voices singing. We are not alone
6. I am one voice, and I'll keep singing. I am not alone.

"Not alone" is important psychologically and sociologically.. Not only does a movement shape the broader society, but it guides and nurtures all of us who are a part of the cause. When we act as part of a collective movement, we are changed, even as we change the world around us.

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"What can we do" is a very different question than "what can I do?" There are projects and causes that will be effective only through coordinated, intentional action. Many of the things we can do, acting together, would be ineffective if done by scattered individuals.

Planning for what we can do together leads us to participate in, and build up, a movement. Here are three suggestions for collective actions that are very different from individual steps.

  1. Two years ago, the Step It Up campaign spawned a vast, grassroots movement calling on the US Congress to take strong action on global climate change. Next fall, on October 24, there will be a similar day of events. Organize one in your community. (Check with Eco-Justice Ministries about planning for Colorado events)

  2. In both the Civil Rights and Women's movements, shifts in language were important strategies for changing awareness. Similarly, the intentional use of words can shape environmental perspectives. Eco-Justice Ministries encourages two language shifts that can make a difference if stressed in and through your church. Intentionally using "creation" instead of "nature" makes it much harder to think of humans as separate from the rest of creation. Stressing "conservation" more than "efficiency" draws us first toward options about not using at all, and respecting the integrity of creation. Language change is a movement strategy that is powerful when many people work together toward new expressions.

  3. Set church policies that spell out congregational commitments. Many churches start along that path with decisions about ceramic coffee cups, or the use of fair trade coffee. A more challenging stance would not allow bottled water at church functions. (That position has been recommended within all congregations of the United Church of Canada). Congregational commitments in support of renewable energy and recycling also call on us to act together in support of shared values.

We are a million voices -- and more -- joining in a common cause of caring for God's creation. We are a movement, capable of bringing about great and transformative change.

Let us be clear in our planning and leadership so that our intentional, collective action gives us power.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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