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

Defending Earth Community
distributed 6/9/17 - ©2017

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Reid Detchon of Bethesda, Maryland. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

It was about 20 years ago that I had my eyes opened to a profound eco-justice concept. A then-new book by Larry Rasmussen introduced me to the vision of "Earth Community."

The ideas that were new to me in 1997 are now central to my daily work with churches and communities. "Earth community" is a foundational principle for much of Eco-Justice Ministries' message. If you are a regular reader of Eco-Justice Notes, you know that the term shows up often in these writings -- often without much description.

For many reasons, it is a good time to step back and consider the meaning and importance of Earth community as an eco-justice principle. But a recent piece of news from the US White House makes it essential that we reaffirm this essential perspective.

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The late-90s book by Dr. Larry Rasmussen is titled, significantly, Earth Community, Earth Ethics. Obviously, the theme that made such an impact on me is central to the message of the book.

In the introduction to the volume, Larry makes two statements that I've often quoted. They reveal that the ethical framework he will be developing calls us toward a dramatic shift in worldview.

That nature is a community is the scientific discovery of the twentieth century. That earth, human society included, is also a community has not yet registered with us. At least how to sustain it as a community has not. (p. 15)

The world of "modern anthropocentrism" is deeply, even fatally, flawed. ... A moral universe limited to the human universe will not, under present circumstances, even understand life, much less serve it. Earth community requires a biocentric or a geocentric knowledge, ethic, and faith. (pp. 17-18)

Community is a rich and evocative word. A community is far more than a place, a collection of individuals, or a political jurisdiction. Community requires relationship and a sense of participation. A functioning community embodies solidarity (a principle that I discussed last week), with the recognition that "we're all in this together", and that unconstrained self-interest is destructive. That's true whether the exploitative interest comes from a profiteering corporation, or an invasive species that overwhelms an ecosystem. Community -- including Martin Luther King's phrasing of "beloved community" -- invites us into a vision of right relationship, into God's shalom.

Rasmussen presumes an ecological perspective that comes from modern science. The discovery that nature is a community -- not a collection of discrete parts -- was a dramatic paradigm shift in biological circles in the 1960s and 70s. An ecological perspective looks at habitats and complex webs of relationships. It is a perspective that has informed many of the environmental laws of recent decades, especially the Endangered Species Act.

But Larry pushes that paradigm shift another giant step with the stretch to Earth community, and the assertion that humans are part of that community. We are not outside of nature, or above it. We are "in and of nature", and any human attempt to understand the planet that is oblivious to the rest of creation is inadequate.

Many of the words that we commonly use to talk about the world carry a deeply anthropocentric presumption. When we speak of nature, our language often implies that it is a realm that is "out there" somewhere, separate from humans. (I've written about the iconography of nature in the photography of Sierra Club calendars.) The environmental justice movement felt a need to bring environmental concerns close to home by saying, "the environment is where we live and work, play and pray", but in doing so it sometimes lost sight of the ecological connections to oceans, rainforests and watersheds.

As many Notes readers have let me know, the language of environmental "stewardship" is problematic because of its centering in human authority. If we are stewards, then we are seen as managers of the natural world, outside of it in some ways, and in an exceptionally privileged role. Whether in religious ethics or political policy-making, the call to be "good stewards" of "natural resources" (things) is a warning sign that we should take a close look at the flawed values and assumptions that are in play.

If we are a part of a community, then we are called to be responsible members of that community. Our participation must recognize the rights and the needs of all other community members. Our goals should include the health and vitality of the entire community, and the stress the possibility of its long-term flourishing.

Earth community -- and I always use a capital "E" -- is a profound challenge to us, personally, institutionally, theologically, and culturally. The simple step of naming our membership in a global, biocentric, generation-spanning community take us out of the center. It re-orients all of our relationships, and critiques many of our priorities.

Larry Rasmussen was, I believe, the first person to put forth Earth community as a major principle of theological ethics, and I am profoundly grateful for his contribution. His revolutionary idea and pithy phrasing from 1996 has bubbled in many other places. It is found in the Earth Charter of 2000. ("To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny.") It is an organizing theme of David Korten's influential book from 2006, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. And very similar themes run through the 2015 encyclical from Pope Francis, Laudato Si', "On Care for Our Common Home."

It is good news that, in the last 20 years, many wise and visionary thinkers have realized that Earth is a community, and that sustaining the community is a primary task.

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So what is it in the news that makes it important to assert Earth community as a core ethical principle?

Within the last couple of weeks, two of Donald Trump's top advisors wrote in the Wall Street Journal about his trip to the Middle East and Europe. They wrote: "The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a 'global community' but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage."

That sentence was quoted by David Brooks, in a New York Times commentary. He responded:

That sentence is the epitome of the Trump project. It asserts that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs. It grows out of a worldview that life is a competitive struggle for gain. It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath.

The current US administration is explicitly rejecting even the notion of human community -- certainly on a global level, and it seems to me even domestically. The notion of Earth community, of an interconnected and interdependent web of life, is clearly far outside their conception.

I don't hold out any hope that Mr. Trump and his advisors/handlers can be converted to a perspective of Earth community. I am adamant, though, that their ideology of selfishness, competition, exploitation and the destruction of community must be challenged at every turn.

It is not enough to argue with the exploiters on their own terms of self-interest and finance. We need to proclaim that Earth, human society included, is a precious and necessary community. We cannot prosper, we cannot exist, unless we take ourselves out of the center, and seek the vitality of the entire Earth community.

As people of faith and conscience, we cannot be silent in these times. We must assert community over individualism. We must value Earth above nation. We must seek God's shalom -- peace, justice and harmony for all of God's creation.

I pray that you will claim Earth community at the center of your ethics. I pray that you will be persistent and persuasive as a defender of Earth community.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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