My graduate program had a number of required courses, including Ecological Sustainability. We had two primary writing assignments for this class. The first one came at the start of the class to assess what we understood about the subject prior to study. The second came at the conclusion of the class as an articulation of what we would do with our new knowledge.
Assignment 1: Ecological Sustainability, What & So What (2005)
There is a very old story in a very old book about a man, a woman, and a garden in which they lived with all the plants and creatures ever born from the imagination of the gardener. One day, the woman took fruit from a prohibited tree. She ate it. It was good. She shared it with the man. But the one who’d made the garden and all that lived in it found offense with the woman’s action. The couple was cast out of the garden, and distance prevailed in their relationship to the gardener and to each other. The woman was told to submit to the man, and the man learned that he would struggle to bring food from the earth to sustain them. Their life of close relationship to all that existed became one of conflict, struggle, and power. Even as the couple was separated from the gardener by their offense, the gardener separated them from nature. It became man’s opposition.
This story has been employed to explain (or shape?) a history of human interaction with the environment. It is the story I was told to describe human distance from the divine, the existence of struggle and suffering, and humans’ special position on earth. The story intimates the way things are and why. The forebears of this nation employed a similar version of this story, with others in the canon, to secure a worldview that granted them power over all that lived. For them, it must have made considerable sense. Human existence was fragile. The story granted them the right to construct something secure that would provide for their survival, perhaps even some comfort. The story sustained them.
The story changed and took on new forms over time, but the elements of separation and power remained. By his harsh treatment of the land, man became prosperous, and his prosperity showed he was favored. We abided a story that established men, and eventually women too, in power over the land and other means to sustaining human life. Today, experts and activists are telling us a different story. They use statistics and predictions to illustrate that this way of life is not sustainable in a self-perpetuating, equitable, healthy way.
According to their evidence, the resources that are necessary for humans to survive are being rapidly depleted. In the struggle for these elements, humans will turn to violence. The current height of consumption is transforming the landscape, as well as the relationships between groups in that altered setting, and shows no signs of hesitating.
This isn’t news. Waste and destruction have long been recognized as the planet’s fate, including the deterioration of human relationships. For this, there is a related story. A man dreamt a bold and powerful dream about the end of all things. Four horsemen rode through the world. They were called War, Famine, Pestilence, and Plague and they were terrible. In the same dream came a promise of a new Heaven and a new Earth. All of this earth, and the people chosen for it, would be remade.
As many of us have heard this story, it is prophecy, foretold, predetermined by the will of another to which we are subject. In that context, what we do, to the earth or to each other, does not change the ending. This destruction has been set before us. From it, our souls might be saved and our bodies remade. According to this telling of the environmental story, that the earth will be destroyed is depicted as a consequence of separation from the original gardener, not the result of our unsustainable actions upon it. But don’t be alarmed, there is still hope; it will be remade, in a new form and in a renewed relationship with the maker.
Though we may not believe these portrayals personally or spiritually, they shaped the development of this country through the philosophy and choices of our forebears. Today there are many who believe the precepts presented in these stories. As religious truth or as a cultural subtext it has shaped our relationship to the planet and the people living here. It has infused our collective sense of: self, relationship to the nature we live in, the questions of our own nature, our expectation and definition of right relationship. It permeates our political foundations, current administration, popular culture and incites counter culture.
Ecological sustainability is the modern day response to the interpretation of these stories as they were manifested historically. Sustainability says that what has been, this separation in our past, is not the way that we can continue to live with any longevity, health, or peace. When we act out power over and apart from nature we destroy, degrade and disintegrate that which gives us life. We have gone from cultivating a stubborn subsistence, to dominating not just planet but people. And in our quest for a prosperous life by “developed” standards we risk having life at all.
Ecological sustainability turns the old stories inside out, upside down, and backwards. Rather than plucking fruit from a distant tree, the new story declares that the tree grows from us, we breathe of it, and the fruit is yield from our union. Where the old story was interpreted to reveal separation, a new story is forming around interdependence. The writers in the ecological sustainability movement offer the promise and responsibility of right relationship with our environment, and cooperative relationship with people. They extend this possibility, not to distant final days and a mysterious remaking, but to our choices together, in close proximity, now. We can be effective today and develop another way of life for the future. We can establish, perhaps, a more harmonious human existence by acting with and in consideration of our physical environment.
To believers in the old story, ecological sustainability touts a potentially blasphemous tale where the earth is deified as a green goddess or perhaps humans have resumed a rebellious stance, resisting the prophecy proclaimed from the dream. But the threat to ecological sustainability isn’t in the old stories or those who believe them, consciously or not. And it is as serious as the grasp with which we hold onto our worldviews is fierce. The greatest threat, the greatest potential, to ecological sustainability is in how it tells its good news.
The threat is disarmed when ecological sustainability is articulated in congruence with the preexisting stories. Statistics about the decline of resources or the rise of violent conflict aren’t necessarily alarming to people who have been expecting it, who perceive it as a herald of the gardener’s return and the time when all things shall be remade. Rather, if you could reenter these old stories and embody them newly you might better reach the communities with which you would like to work for change. In fact, some of these communities have already started from within. They approach the work as stewards of the gardener’s broader garden. Others engage it from the angle of justice and compassion in accordance with a holy model. But they make the information meaningful by more than educating people through the distribution of data. It’s not enough to know the numbers and scenarios. It has to be connected to how we make sense of and engage the world, seen and unseen.
Ecological sustainability suggests a new story of relationship. We cannot simply toss aside the old ones. We may not believe that there is a maker who disdains women’s choices, and prefers distance and retribution to connection and mercy. And yet the traditional messages from these stories persist. Telling a new story will not replace them. New meanings may be melded within the values, constructs, and characters of the old stories. To do this requires of advocates for ecological sustainability humility and a relinquishing of the meaning they assign to the data of these times.
Genesis 2:15-3:24, New International Version
Revelation 6:1-17, NIV
Revelation 21-22:21, NIV
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