Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Surface and Systems
distributed 6/8/18 - ©2018

There were occasions when I'd be driving around Denver with my friend, Ted, and he'd see a giant SUV in front of us with some kind of environmentalist bumper sticker.

I'd then be treated to a passionate, free-flowing, humorous and biting diatribe about those horrible people who claim to love nature and yet destroy it by driving their gas-guzzling behemoths to their opulent vacation homes 100 miles away in the Colorado mountains. It was great fun, but Ted's screaming at "those people" didn't build a lot of understanding, or go very far in determining how we might get them to behave differently.

Assuming the Hummer driver with a Wilderness Society sticker was sincere, how do we make sense out of what was -- for Ted and me, at least -- a glaring contradiction? An important, but unpublished, study in social psychology is very helpful.

+     +     +     +     +

Back in 2004 -- the same era as Ted's Denver rants -- I heard a presentation on an extensive public research project that was conducted by the Sierra Club. It probed far deeper than the simple and leading questions of most opinion polls. (Do you consider yourself an environmentalist? Do you want clean air and water? Thanks for your time!) The study tried to understand some of the core beliefs and motivations of Sierra Club members in the US.

One detail of their findings jumped out as a profound insight when I first heard it. In the many years since, that insight from the report has informed much of the work of Eco-Justice Ministries, and it decisively shaped some of my work with the national United Church of Christ. That section of the report has been very important to me because it explains exactly the sort of discontinuities that Ted rails against, and it opens up to me appropriate strategies for change.

In extensive focus group conversations, the researchers probed a question about how people love nature. Their findings revealed two distinct groups based on their approaches to the natural world. In the words of the report, there are those who see "nature as surface" and those who see "nature as system."

The "nature as surface" group looks at the natural world the same way that they would look at a beautiful painting -- as a lovely thing to be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities. That "thing" is seen as a fairly simple collection of objects -- mountains and trees, or sand and waves at the beach. There's very little awareness about the details of those objects, the many different species of trees, for example, and the way those trees are shaped by the interactions of soil, weather, wildlife, and of course human impacts.

The "nature as system" group sees the natural world as a complex web of relationships. They are aware of the interconnections between all of the elements of the setting, even those that are largely invisible at first glance, and those that reach far in space and time.

The objects of Ted's ire most likely are in the "nature as surface" crowd. They do, indeed, love nature. They love to go see the stunning beauty of the natural world. They love it so much, in fact, that those who can afford it will build a huge second home in the midst of the mountains, and drive their SUV up there every weekend to be close to that beauty.

Ted and I (firmly entrenched in the "nature as system" perspective) are painfully aware of the ways in which those weekend residents of the mountains fragment habitat with roads and homes, disturb wildlife, deplete streams, and pollute the air. The sort of nature that we understand is damaged, even destroyed, by those who only see a charming scene of natural beauty.

The Sierra Club research points out that the "nature as surface" folk don't tend to understand the ways in which Colorado's mountains serve as essential watersheds. They are inclined to see bears and mountain lions as intruders. Because they perceive a set of objects, and not a dynamic system, they genuinely do not understand their own impacts on nature, or the need to preserve healthy relationships among all elements of the system.

This old research opens up important insights for us who are working at ecological preservation. Our challenge is not to have people "love nature" -- because those in both groups sincerely do. Our task is to help those who love nature's surface beauty to see more deeply, so that they may begin to understand and appreciate the complex systems of the natural world. That awareness of systems will lead toward a desire to protect and sustain those dynamic relationships.

+     +     +     +     +

Since Eco-Justice Notes is targeted for a churchy audience, let me be very explicit in connecting this surface/system distinction to our church life.

When nature is a part of our worship and spirituality (which happens all to rarely in most churches), it is generally found within a "surface" approach. As we read the Psalms, as we sing our hymns, as beautiful pictures are used to move us toward devotion, we generally take a shallow approach to nature.

We may, perhaps, be inspired to awe by the majestic God who created the broad sweep of the oceans and the soaring mountain peaks. Gorgeous scenery may move us to an appreciation of creation's beauty at an emotional level. (A loving emotional response certainly is more faithful than a purely utilitarian emphasis on nature as a pool of resources to be tapped for human use. Those who celebrate the extraction of natural resources as an economic bonanza live within a different subset of the "nature as surface" mindset.)

Rarely does the church's liturgy, hymnody, and devotional literature name and celebrate the complex ecological relationships of our world. If "nature as surface" is the only message about God's creation that people hear in church, then they will never understand the importance of endangered species, or the preservation of migration pathways, or constraints on urban sprawl. They certainly won't be inclined to see those ecologically responsible approaches as a matter of faith.

The path to a spirituality that is intimately aware of nature's systems may be long, but the first steps on that path are not hard to take. In your own devotional life, and in your roles of church leadership, simply push one layer deeper into the systems that sustain us. Move one step along the interconnected web of life, and celebrate the relationships.

Give thanks for the water we drink, and for the wetlands that filter it. Give thanks for the fruit that we eat, and for the bees that pollinated the flowers. Lift up the wonders of seasonal migration as an essential part of the web of life. Pray for the mangroves and coral reefs that are the breeding grounds for so much ocean life.

Those simple steps into an awareness of ecological relationships will help us praise the God who creates dynamic and ever-renewing systems. In that sort of praise, we will be moved toward ecological sustainability as a core part of our faith and ethics.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

This week's Notes revises one of the same title first distributed on 6/24/2005.

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form