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

The GND -- Evolution, not Progress
distributed 2/8/19 - ©2019

Yesterday, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced a resolution for a Green New Deal (GND). This isn't a piece of legislation -- when Congress gets to that point, the bills will be far longer than 14 pages! Rather, this short resolution begins to lay out the goals, aspirations, and specifics of the proposed program.

The Green New Deal pulls together many essential issues: rapidly cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero; a fair and just transition for communities and workers; good jobs and economic security; a wide range of justice commitments, and much more. If this vision can be realized, it will represent a profound change in US policies and perspectives, turning this nation's programs to be much more in line with eco-justice ethics. The Green New Deal would be a very big deal.

This is a policy proposal which should receive lots of attention, stir up lots of debate, and be given very serious consideration by all who care about climate justice. I hope that faith communities will be active and enthusiastic participants in that conversation.

The 14 pages of the resolution don't give us a lot of context, or insights into strategy, which can make it hard for those outside of policy circles to catch the subtleties. For a valuable primer on what is going on in -- and behind -- the resolution, I point you to an article in Vox by David Roberts (a journalist that I greatly respect) which provides a clear and comprehensive analysis.

I strongly urge you to read the resolution, or the Roberts article, and to be an advocate for this thoughtful and visionary proposal for a Green New Deal.

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An odd bit of synchronicity this week gives me a quirky perspective on the Green New Deal. I'll suggest that we look at this dramatic proposal in Congress as evolutionary, rather than progressive. Clinging to progress will doom us; evolution can open fresh possibilities.

That language comes to mind because, in the coming days, hundreds of congregations in the United States will observe "Evolution Weekend" as "an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science." That affirmation of the scientific study of evolution gives us -- perhaps indirectly! -- some helpful insights into social change.

I'm sure you've seen some variation of the classic illustration of human evolution, a sequence of five images moving from an ape to a modern human -- almost always ending with a white male, by the way. The picture is well enough known that it is widely lampooned -- with Homer Simpson as the end of the evolutionary line, for example.

Biologists generally don't like that image of evolution, because it suggests a fairly linear progression toward a predetermined goal -- a goal which just happens to be us, as the pinnacle of creation. If evolution is seen as progress toward a goal, then the thing that evolves is seen as becoming "better" with each change. We have a pretty clear idea of what is good, and we take delight as things move toward that goal. So, from our perspective, the "most evolved" species are seen as big-brained mammals.

The problem is, most scholars of evolution reject the notion of a goal. Evolution is about change and adaptation, but not about progress. Evolution selects the creatures that are best adapted for their present situation, which may or may not be a path to future success.

If you really want to stretch your brain about evolution, read Steven Jay Gould's book, "Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History." His title draws on the familiar Jimmy Stewart movie, and the idea that if you could re-play history, it probably would not turn out the same way. Re-running billions of years of evolution would come up with a very different world, quite possibly one without humans.

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So, what does this have to do with the Green New Deal and social change? How does evolution -- in culture, not biology -- open up different possibilities than progress?

Our modern culture is fixated on progress, on moving toward a goal, and that "progress" generally is defined in ways that leads to devastating creation. In common usage, progress is about growing the economy, having more stuff, using more technology, and exerting more control over nature. (Many years ago, I fleshed out that idea in "Progress-ive Values.")

When our culture has such a clear and firmly held notion of progress, we're unlikely to change direction. If our desire for "improvement" leads us to do even more of what is causing the problem, then we're in big trouble.

But if we look to evolution (as adaptation and fitness), instead of longing for continued progress toward our beloved goal, then we're able to explore fresh possibilities. Evolving and adapting to profoundly new situations, instead of progressing along the same pathways, allows dramatic changes, both biologically and culturally.

I'm suggesting that, with proposals like the Green New Deal, our modern culture needs to turn away from much of what we have called "progress," and enter into the adventurous spirit of evolution. An evolutionary approach allows us to look honestly and seriously at the world around us, and to consider how we might live most appropriately in this rapidly changing world.

Evolution rewards the organisms (or cultures) which are best adapted to their world. An honest assessment reveals that the global human civilization is very poorly adapted to the world we're living in.

Our culture's definition of progress is leading us ever-deeper into catastrophe. We are destroying the basis of our own future, and devastating the world around us. We need to let go of the goals that have shaped us, and adapt to this radically new situation. We need to evolve into a different sort of culture -- or a variety of cultures -- that are sustainable.

James Gustave Speth wrote, "all we have to do to destroy the planet's climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today." The vision and values that we have called "progress" are no longer appropriate.

Evolution gives us a different framework for understanding our choices. Just as species have evolved in relation to their environment, so too can cultures adapt and evolve. And unlike biological evolution, human cultures can make intentional choices about when dramatic changes are needed. We can let go of our flawed notion of "progress" with the assurance that change toward new values and different goals can be life-giving.

The Christian gospel is full of promises about change -- that we can be "made new", that we can choose between life and death, that love can break into the world and transform it. That depth of change is impossible if we cling to the vision of progress that is leading us into destruction. So I pray that, through bold policies like the Green New Deal, we may change, we may evolve, and we may become something new and different and wonderful.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

This week's Notes updates and expands on a theme from February 8, 2013.

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