Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

6 Stages of Environmental Engagement
distributed 4/20/12 - ©2012

42 years ago, the first Earth Day broke open the modern environmental movement as a social and political force. On thousands of campuses and in other community settings -- and without the benefit of the Internet! -- "teach-in" events brought out 20 million people for a day that mixed education and activism. (I helped organize the activities at my high school, a fitting way to end my senior year.)

At Earth Day and throughout the year, in churches and in secular settings, the teach-in approach to fostering awareness and action still seems to be a dominant model in the environmental movement. We gather a crowd of likely people together and share information that we hope will motivate them to join the cause. Sometimes that works very well, and other times it doesn't lead to the engagement that we desired.

At a "climate change and faith" conference last weekend, I shared some of my perceptions about the role of teaching in what I've named as six levels of environmental involvement. (The same steps probably apply to other areas of social concern, too.) Often, there's a progression through the steps, building on the prior layers. The process can stop -- briefly or forever -- at any stage.

Take a look at these six stages. Reflect on where you might fit in the sequence. Think about where you'd locate most of the members of your church or community, and ponder what might be needed to move them along though the levels. Consider the differences in what is taught, and how, in relation to each of the steps. Let me know if there are other stages or other factors that should be added to the list.

  1. Oblivious -- The "don't know, don't care" contingent is the bottom end of the scale. They are the folk who, for whatever reason, do not connect at all with the issues and perspectives that we activists find so urgent. Environmental matters are "not on their radar screen" as something that warrants attention or action. Other issues -- the economy, family stress, activism on racial justice, or keeping up with the latest fashions -- have a higher priority. In many churches, unfortunately, there is a long-standing sense that "the environment" just isn't something that we talk about or care about. Some people have made conscious or unconscious decisions to be oblivious and disengaged about environmental topics because the find the state of the world to painful to face.

  2. Informed -- We move up one step with those who know about the science and the issues. They have read the news, watched the videos, and gone to seminars. They could pass a test about the details of an issue, but their knowledge is all in the head. Pure information does not automatically lead to ethical consideration or action. I have a hunch that most churches think they have done important things about environmental topics when they have a class session to inform members -- and then stop at that step. Interestingly, many of the most adamant climate "deniers" consider themselves to be very well informed on the issue.

  3. Concerned -- This starts to add an emotional and moral component to being informed. What we know is extended into an awareness of consequences in a way that evokes anxiety, or stirs concerns about injustice. There's a value judgment, that I don't like what I have learned, that I'm not comfortable with where our society, or the world, is headed. This concern is often expressed emotionally as anger or fear. Concern, by itself, is fairly passive. It is quite possible to be deeply concerned without doing anything. A strong sense of concern, combined with a perception of powerlessness, can lead people to choose to be oblivious instead of being caught in a perpetual state of painful distress.

  4. Compassionate -- This shifts the quality of emotions, so that we're not only worried about a general trend or a projected outcome, but we start to think and act out of love and care for those who are most impacted. One might be concerned about mercury pollution from power plants as an abstraction; compassion kicks in when you meet someone whose children are mentally impaired because of that pollution. It gets personal, and evokes stronger emotions. I know lots of people who became engaged on climate change when they started to think about the world their children or grandchildren would inherit.

  5. Committed -- At this fifth step, we move from various forms of awareness and emotion to making decisions. Internalized knowing and feeling progress into an externalized commitment to do something. Commitment can start with the most basic actions (turn off the water when brushing your teeth, recycle cans and bottles), and may range into passionate forms of political action. There are lots of factors that might shape how deeply one moves into commitment and activism, but there is a qualitative difference that comes with the decision to act.

  6. Transformed -- Finally, the step of transformation draws on information and moral concern to recognize that our eco-justice crisis expresses a breakdown of our society's core institutions and worldview. Commitment moves beyond issue activism into work for new ways of living in social and ecological relationships. Transformation seeks to change who we are, as well as what we do. (Eco-Justice Ministries believes that this depth of transformation is essential, and that churches have special opportunities to facilitate it.)

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I have found it helpful to have labels and language for these six steps. They help me to see a sequence of engagement, and to be aware of the interplay between knowledge, emotion and action. These labels help me as I talk to individuals, and evaluate church programs, in seeing what might be needed to push deeper into forms of effective action.

There is some sense in which these six steps form a progression, as I have described them today. Information and concern are usually prerequisites for commitment and transformation.

There are also ways in which we all move back and forth between these stages. Concern can lead someone to seek more information. Acting on commitment might bring one into relationships that stimulate compassion. In next week's Notes, I expect to look at some of the interplay between commitment and knowledge, and the different sorts of information that are appropriate at various stages.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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