Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

A Relational World
distributed 4/1/11 - ©2011

Telling the Truth about God's Creation
An Eco-Justice Notes series for Lent, 2011

There are many forms and layers of truth that shape our decisions about how to live in relationship with God's creation. Those truths include scientific, theological, moral and psychological assertions which often hold conflicting beliefs or conclusions. To be honest and fruitful, though, any statement of truth must conform to basic facts about the world in which we live. This Lenten series will address several of those foundational truths which are apparent from an eco-justice perspective, but which are often denied by others.

So far in this Lenten series, I've named three truths about God's creation: the immutable physical laws of the universe, and the fact that humans are simply creatures within the creation even as we are a species with immense power.

The fourth truth is ecological, in the largest sense of that term. We live in a world that is inherently relational. All people, all creatures, all things exist within the context of a web of relationships.

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In 1956, biologist Rachel Carson wrote about the way in which this ecological truth was impacting her own field of scientific study.

For it has dawned on us in these recent years of the maturing of our science that neither man nor any other living creature may be studied or comprehended apart from the world in which he lives; that such restricted studies as the classification of plants and animals or descriptions of their anatomy and physiology ... are but one small facet of a subject so many-sided, so rich in beauty and fascination, and so filled with significance that no informed reader can neglect it.

Carson said that the prevailing method of biological research in the 1950s -- which intentionally and explicitly excluded a consideration of relationships with other species or within a habitat -- could never provide comprehensive truth about our complex world. She also said that environmental policies must conform to ecological truth.

Awareness of ecological relationships is -- or should be -- the basis of modern conservation programs, for it is useless to attempt to preserve a living species unless the kind of land or water it requires is also preserved. So delicately interwoven are the relationships that when we disturb one thread of the community fabric we alter it all -- perhaps almost imperceptibly, perhaps so drastically that destruction follows.

My own education, training and experience make ecological relationships seem self-evident, but there are many people who do not acknowledge this truth about the world. When they see a world filled only with things and resources, they are blind to the countless ways that organisms of various kinds are woven into interdependence. Even though many people will not, or cannot, perceive those ecological relationships, the relationships are not a matter of opinion or belief. The interconnection and dependence among individuals and species is functionally and objectively real. Any belief system or ideology which denies these relationships is not truthful.

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The truth of biological relationships is echoed in what we know of human relationships. Sociology and economics deal with the structures and patterns of the myriad interpersonal, cultural and financial interaction which surround us.

It is obvious that relationships shape and define human identities and actions -- in families and neighborhoods, jobs and clubs, churches and nations. As Rachel Carson said, we humans cannot be comprehended apart from the world of relationships in which we live. Those relationships are both personal and institutional.

Liberation theologian Jose Miguez Bonino wrote, "in the complex nexus of relations that the modern economy weaves around the world, decisions and actions taken in distant places are incorporated into a total system that in decisive ways affects my individual life." He adds an ethical perspective to the fact of relationship when he writes, "justice is essentially a concept of relation ... To be 'loyal' to the relation involved is to be 'just'; to falsify these relationships is to be 'unjust'.

An all-too-common and simplistic sense of human relationships emphasizes interpersonal connections, without also bearing in mind factors of institutional presence and power. For example, we often see the suggestion that individuals make "green" consumer choices. But those recommendations don't adequately acknowledge that our economic decisions take place within the context of powerful advertising, limited product options, and confining regulation. People of good conscience may not be able to act on their preferred choices when institutional and structural relationships are confining -- forcing the daily use of a car, precluding healthy food choices, or severely limiting the range of political options.

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The web of relationships extends through time as well as space. An honest consideration of our relational world must try to address not only immediate effects between individuals or entities, but also bear in mind what is possible or likely in the future.

A discussion of our relationships is not honest when it only names immediate impacts. Some who oppose action on climate change point out that closing down coal-fired power plants would lead to a loss of coal mining jobs, and that is probably true. But it is also true that other jobs and opportunities will emerge as the web of social, economic and ecological relationships continues to react and adjust to today's actions and decisions. Current emissions of greenhouse gasses may have effects that are hard to measure or see in the short term, but those impacts will have dramatic long-term effects on the global climate, ecological relationships, and social systems. We are related to human and natural communities in ways that reach far into the future.

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The truth about God's creation must include the truth that we live within a relational world. Any reputable or honest description of the world must strive to see the full range and diversity of those relationships. A belief system which does not acknowledge even the most basic of those relationships must be critiqued and discredited.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

One of Eco-Justice Ministries' four theological affirmations states, "We live in a world of complex and interdependent relationships" . A series of Eco-Justice Notes in 2009 examined each of those affirmations, and the one on relationships approaches the topic in a slightly different way than today's commentary.

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