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

The Enticing Hope of Reorientation
distributed 7/17/20 - ©2020

In early May -- which feels like a very long time ago, but is just back two months on the calendar -- I wrote about the possibilities of "holy disorientation" in this time of pandemic. Disorientation comes when the status quo ("normal") goes away, and we realize that we can't go back to what used to be.

Disorientation opens the door to fresh possibilities, and to a genuine reorientation. When life completely falls apart, we're able to celebrate transformational change.

In May, I wrote, "For most of us, I don't think we're at anything near that level of turmoil -- at least not most of the time." Then came the murder of George Floyd, and weeks of protests in the streets, and the removal of statues, and the changing of a state flag, and the renaming of sports teams, and serious talk about "defunding the police."

For large numbers of people in the US, festering feelings of dissatisfaction and hidden experiences of injustice have coalesced into anger, and an awareness of systemic failures, and demands for genuine change. On an opposing side, though, large numbers -- including the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. -- resist any new realizations and struggle to get back to "normal" as quickly as possible.

And so we have conflict. Are statues of Confederate soldiers cherished parts of our history, or are they tools of intimidation and suppression? Are ordinary patterns of policing filled with violence and bigotry, or are they blessed forms of security? Are face masks a violation of personal freedom imposed by an over-reaching state, or are they a simple shared obligation as we seek public health?

The polarization is intense, and non-rational. Our guts and our loyalties join with our heads as we look for direction. But I don't think this is just a political fight between liberal and conservative factions. Something much deeper is going on which could be genuinely transformational.

If we are in a time of disorientation, then there are choices to be made as we move into reorientation. I'll draw on three very different sources to sketch out what I mean.

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There's a rather interesting book review in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine. The book attempts to make sense of the US state of Florida, based on the author's 2016 walk the length of the peninsula. The reviewer mingles those observations from three years ago with fresh insights during the pandemic.

There are bits about how "frontier values" define Florida, even with the liberal Baby Boomers who flock to the state, and how "liberty" is equated with "license" -- a perspective that underlies much of the current furor around face masks. Florida is described as being built on promises of an eternal present, with a disregard for the past, and "a refusal to give a single naked whit about the future."

The reviewer writes of the book's "most painful observation," and gives this quote:

Call it what you like -- relativism, postmodernism, deconstruction. The lesson is one and the same: The truth is not out there waiting to be objectively uncovered. The truth is made. Facts are fabricated as seen fit by the powers that be, and then consent for those facts is manufactured, enforced.

The review ends with another quote: "How long before a society of atomized individuals rightfully following only their desires, heedless of what they owe others, destroys itself?"

Those quotations came back to me when I watched part of a recent webinar series, "Will Modern Civilization be the Death of Us?" I watched the second section, which is an hour-long presentation by Canadian "futures researcher" Ruben Nelson. It was a fascinating, if a bit weighty, talk.

He spends a goodly bit of time making it clear that our "modern techno-industrial culture" is different from all previous cultures, not just by our technology or knowledge, but by ways of thinking which are in sharp contrast to other ways of viewing the world.

I'll dramatically simplify his main thesis (discussed in the video from 32:00 to about the one hour mark), which he illustrates with a 4-box grid, with two intersecting axes. One dimension looks at the philosophic question of whether reality is considered to be dynamic or static. Is the essential character of the world changeable, or are there universal truths? (Aristotle is a strong example of believing in unchanging truth, as are doctrinaire religions.) The other dimension asks how we know reality. Is it atomized, and known in and through individual persons, or is it relational, known only in a community context?

Each of the four boxes describes a culture. In the top right (dynamic and relational) are indigenous cultures. The top left (static and relational) covers the range from settled agricultural societies to historical empires, all of which are hierarchical. The lower left (static and atomized) is the world of modern techno-industrial capitalism -- our dominant culture. It is (as I've often written) intensely individualistic, and sees the world as things to be used, exploited and controlled. Nelson comments that, in this culture, "there's no basis for self-sacrifice." The lower right (dynamic and atomized) is the realm of post-modernism. It is a chaotic world, with no shared realities; each person makes up their own truth. "You can't build a house there," he quips, and it can't sustain an ongoing society. That corner of the chart looks a lot like the atomized, ahistorical and self-destructive Florida from the book review.

Will modern civilization be the death of us? Yes. Nelson says that the top right box -- which I'll describe as ecologically dynamic and committed to Earth community -- is the only one which can be sustainable. Modern civilization will be the death of us, but we can change our ways of understanding the world and build a different culture. He suggests the label of "neo-indigenous" for this most viable option.

Which brings me to my third source for the day. Five years ago, Pope Francis published the encyclical, Laudato Si', On Care for Our Common Home. In a sweeping critique of the modern world, the encyclical touches very briefly on climate change, and names many other urgent crises. These dysfunctions and traumas are products of what he calls the Technocratic Paradigm.

I won't quote a lot of the Pope -- you can skim through Chapter 3 of the encyclical, "The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis" -- but I was struck by how much it parallels Nelson's description of modernity. Just one sentence: "Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one's own immediate interests."

Pope Francis thinks that the Technocratic Paradigm will be the death of us. He points to a different way of understanding the world and building a culture, which he calls "integral ecology." Hallmarks of that view are an acceptance of the dynamism of ecological and social relationships, and a commitment to the common good and intergenerational justice. On Nelson's chart, that's squarely in the top-right box.

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We are living in a time of profound social turmoil. The battle lines, for right now, are about face masks and the police. Those are just the flash points, though, as we face up to fractures in the foundations of our culture. Suddenly, a substantial number of people are in disorientation. "Normal" has fallen apart, and we know that we can't go back there.

We see it with weeks of protests in the streets, and with the Green New Deal seeking a more communitarian way to address the climate crisis and economic/racial injustice. We see it as a pandemic exposes stark inequality, and reveals the shortcomings of a purely market-driven economy. It shows up in descriptions of the crazy culture of Florida, and in the Pope's analysis of the global society. And a little-known Canadian academic puts it all in a tidy chart.

The modern world will be the death of us. But our short-sighted culture of individualism and exploitation is not the only way to organize human societies. Wise and learned people are sketching out the transformations that can shift us toward a more just and sustainable society. (Columnist Naomi Klein and theologian Cynthia Moe-Lobeda are two examples.) The core principles of eco-justice ethics point us in the same direction.

Disorientation is an uncomfortable state. We know we mustn't go back to what had been "normal," and yet we're not sure how to reorient toward a better future. In these troubling times, may we have the courage to make bold choices, and the wisdom to learn from prophetic leaders, as we act to turn our society toward sustainability and justice.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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