Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Spinning Our Wheels
distributed 10/30/09 - ©2009

This week, the first big snowstorm of the year hit Denver. With more than a foot of wet snow on top of warm streets, it was easy to see who has winter driving experience.

Some folk navigated the sloppy roads without much difficulty. I saw many others, though, who never learned the basics. From our kitchen window, I witnessed a series of drivers who bogged down along the side of the street. Helpful neighbors pitched in pushing the stuck cars, while the drivers spun their tires. The whirling wheels created lots of sound and excitement, and did nothing at all to move the vehicle.

Those of you who live in a snowy climate know (I hope) that slow and gentle is the key to winter driving. Stomping on the gas and spinning the tires destroys all the traction, ices the street even more, and just makes things worse.

As I watched that scene repeated again and again, I started to see it as a metaphor for a larger pattern in our culture. When we encounter a problem, the standard inclination is often to use more power, more force, and more technology in an effort to blast through any difficulties. All too rarely does it occur to us to back off on the throttle, to go gently, to use less power and less resources, and to trust a less domineering approach.

Whether we're looking at winter driving, the practices of modern agriculture, or industrial design, better outcomes occur when we back off from brute force. A lighter hand that works in cooperation with the situation is more fruitful and more sustainable.

To shift scenes rather abruptly, my mental image for the alternative approach is a kayaker running a wild river. A person in a tiny boat with just a paddle has to work in cooperation with the rushing water. There's no way the paddler can overpower the cascading torrents and impose her will. Instead, the skilled kayaker rides the currents and lets the water provide the power to push through danger spots. Backwaters and eddies behind rocks can be resting places and tools for redirecting the boat. I've seen experts skim all the way across a rushing river, using the flow of the water to "ferry" the kayak with almost no effort needed from the person paddling.

I admit that the kayak image has limitations. Working with the river is fine if your goal is to get downstream. It is far less successful for going up the rapids. But for our social analogy, maybe we also need to reconsider the direction we're headed, and what our goals really are. Maybe we'll be better off if we head downstream, too.

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The metaphors of winter driving and kayaks apply to much larger and more important questions. If our society's inclination is to overpower a problem with brute force, what other options are less domineering and more cooperative with natural systems?

I see the mindset of power and control in many aspects of modern agriculture. Across the midwestern US, enormous areas are planted in monocultures of the same crop. Fields of genetically identical corn spread across thousands of square miles, requiring vast amounts of fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. Much of that corn is used to feed livestock -- cattle in feedlots, hogs and chickens crammed into buildings. Those animals, too, are maintained (not nurtured, just maintained) through the pre-emptive use of antibiotics. Our food is grown through the pervasive and extensive use of chemicals, adding more and more inputs to deal with growing problems of disease, depletion and imbalances.

An alternative form of agriculture taps into ancient wisdom about a diversity of crops, where a great variety of species limits the risk of rampaging disease and insects, and where crop rotation nurtures the soil. Animals raised more humanely and less intensively don't need the constant dosages of medicine. The gentle approach builds on the strengths of nature, instead of trying to overwhelm and control the natural processes.

I also see the mindless application of wasteful power in the processes of energy production and industrial design. Electrical power plants heat water to make the steam that drives turbines, and then cooling towers dump much of that heat as "waste" back into the air. (You've certainly seen pictures of the clouds of steam pouring out of those towers.) Meanwhile, it is common to have other nearby industries firing up their own burners and boilers to generate the heat that they need for their businesses. Each business, thinking only of its own needs, burns lots of energy to power their own processes. The result is lots of waste and pollution.

The industrial alternative is a simple idea called cogeneration. The waste heat from one process becomes the valuable input for another one. In a common situation, the excess hot water from a power plant is used to provide heat for nearby buildings. Just like the kayaker sees helpful tools in the rushing currents, cogeneration reveals that businesses working together can benefit each other and eliminate waste.

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The inexperienced winter driver thinks that sending more power to the wheels will blast the vehicle out of a snowdrift. That idea has close parallels in the notion that using more fuel, more technology and more control is always the best way to address any problem. Businesses disregard the "spinning wheels" of waste and pollution as blindly as an inexperienced driver ignores their poor results in getting through the snow. Eventually, though, depleted soils, spreading resistance to herbicides and antibiotics, and the reality of global climate change reveal the absurdity of the wasteful and dominating style.

An alternative approach is needed. Sustainable agriculture and efficient designs for energy use are practical examples of a lower-impact, take-it-easy style.

The low-impact approach is part of an economic philosophy popularized by Paul Hawken, Hunter Lovins and Amory Lovins in their book Natural Capitalism. One of the principles of natural capitalism calls for "redesigning industrial processes and the delivery of products and services to do business as nature does, an approach known as biomimicry. This approach enables a wide array of materials to be produced with low energy flows, in processes that run on sunlight, with the constant reuse of materials and the elimination of toxicity."

Biomimicry is the opposite of the wheel-spinning, dominating approach that simply tries to overwhelm any problem. It guides us into ways of living and acting that are less wasteful and less destructive.

May we -- individually and as a society -- learn how to stop spinning our wheels in misguided and ineffective attempts to control and overwhelm the world. May we adopt the sensible and readily available ways to live more gently and sustainably.

For people in the Denver area, Hunter Lovins will be a keynote speaker at the November 13-14, 2009, conference on Climate Change and Faith. Join us for her Friday evening presentation to hear about the wise insights of natural capitalism and sustainable design.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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