Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Too Much Attention to Climate?
distributed 10/25/19 - ©2019

Many years ago, at a public gathering, I made an almost heretical declaration. "I'm concerned that we're paying too much attention to global warming."

These days, when the term "global warming" has been replaced by "the climate crisis," my declaration would create an angry outcry in many settings. I still stand behind my expression of concern, though -- when I can put the blunt sentence into a larger context.

Giving attention to a much broader range of eco-justice issues can help us deal with the climate crisis, if we dig deeply to understand how all those issues fit together.

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There's a short little exercise that I often use when teaching a class or leading a workshop. With a pad of newsprint or a white board at hand, I invite the folk to name the environmental issues that they know about and care about.

Climate change is often the first to be voiced. Recently, plastic in the ocean is an early item on the list. Fracking is on the minds of people in Colorado, where a lot of those drilling operations take place. I ask them to get more specific about why fracking is a problem, and they talk about air pollution (including climate warping methane), the amount of water that is used and then lost, noise and light pollution, and the disruption of wildlife.

Wildlife comes up in other ways, too. There are worries about the collapse of bee populations, the disappearance of Monarch butterflies, and other aspects of "the insect apocalypse." Coral reefs are bleaching. Populations of ocean fish are plummeting. Polar bears starve without sea ice. Rain forest destruction wipes out countless species that depend on that lush habitat.

Urban air pollution is a concern, especially with the way dirty air causes health issues for the poor who live near industries and highways, and who have above-average rates of asthma. Toxic chemicals that persist in the environment and never break down are a problem.

As we keep adding to the list, agricultural chemicals are tied to several issues: Roundup is linked to the loss of butterflies; pesticides are connected to bee collapse, and less directly to the decline in song birds; over-fertilization leads to dead zones in the ocean; and there are severe health dangers for the farm workers (often migrants) who apply the toxic chemicals.

Overpopulation and over-consumption are added to the newsprint, and so are complex water crises like the one in Flint, Michigan. The list goes on and on. Connections are seen between items, and the list turns into a web of relationships.

Eventually the newsprint is full and I call a stop. We pause for a moment in silence, looking at the number and complexity of issues that are well-known to almost all of us.

Then I offer a word of explanation. "I didn't have you create this list to get you depressed." (Somebody usually pipes up with, "Too late!")

I continue, "There's actually a kind of good news in our gathering together this web of inter-connected issues. It shows us that we don't have to face 75 separate issues, each needing to be addressed in isolation. What we're seeing is that there is really just one very big issue. Our modern society is living in a broken and confused relationship with the natural world. All of these issues are symptoms of that deeper problem. If we can find a way to re-orient our culture and our values, it will be much easier to fix all of the problems on the newsprint."

The rest of the time with the class or workshop looks at what's broken in our culture and our values, and how a different way of living is possible.

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Eco-Justice Ministries focuses on what we call "transformational ministries." Our major emphasis is not on environmental legislation, or technologies for energy conservation, or how individuals can reduce their environmental footprint.

Transformational ministries are where churches reveal the flawed relationships with Creation that are the basis for modern society, and when they help develop the more appropriate values and worldviews that can shape a more just and sustainable way of living. Churches and other faith communities can draw on deep spiritual and theological roots in proposing better notions of progress and the good life and Earth community.

Proposing transformation instead of activism can seem really idealistic and abstract. But remember what that the big report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change a year ago said -- that it will be easier to limit warming to 1.5 degrees when we also take sustainable development and social justice seriously as a parallel goal. The climate scientists see a transformative shift from business-as-usual to an emphasis on the poor and global justice as a necessary part of the climate solution.

And remember that the major UN report on extinction last May was even more explicit. Those scientists wrote, "Nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably while simultaneously meeting other global societal goals through urgent and concert efforts fostering transformative change." That means that "the world's legal, institutional and economic systems must be reformed entirely. And this change needs to happen immediately." They told us that rapid transformational change is the only way to maintain the biosphere.

Almost 12 years ago, I said, "I'm concerned that we're paying too much attention to global warming." I was -- and am -- concerned because, if we only pay attention to the climate crisis, then it looks like a problem to be fixed with technology and economics. If we only look at climate, we can pretend that we don't need to look at how we live our lives, or question the values that we hold.

If we spend a bit less time and energy on climate, though, and give some attention to species extinction, and toxic chemicals, and water problems, then we might start to understand that our whole society needs to change course. Such a transformational change opens up ways to more effectively address the climate crisis, and the extinction crisis, and the plastic-in-the-ocean crisis, and the whole web of inter-connected problems.

Over 20 years ago, Paul Gorman -- the founder of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment -- made a similar point. "We don't believe we are going to reverse the environmental crisis by simply passing laws. We have to change the human understanding of its place and purpose in creation. Unless you have that fundamental change in values, many of us believe environmental degradation will be irreversible."

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I've been writing a lot recently about aspects of transformation and the important role of churches. I've been beating that drum because I think that transformational change is our best hope for addressing the range of crises that we're facing today.

That's my perspective, and now I'd really like to hear from you. Your responses will help shape the direction of Eco-Justice Ministries in the coming months.

Do you see an emphasis on transformational change as hopeful, or as a dangerous distraction? Does a deep dive into our cultural values and beliefs give us insights and tools for profound and rapid change? Or does an exploration into transformational values feel like it will slow down or distract current political and public actions to address the climate crisis?

I really want to hear from a lot of Notes readers. Reply to this email to let me know your quick reaction (yes to transformation, or keep the focus on climate action), or give me a longer reply with your perspectives.

I value your thoughts and opinions. Let me know your take on transformation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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