Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: Human Privilege and Entitlement

How Important Are We Really? Further Reflection on Human Privilege

This blog post was precipitated by a response to an earlier post defining the concept of anthropocentrism. I am always grateful for the invitation to write more about pretty much anything!

Do you ever wonder how we humans have evolved into such a hard driven, over-scheduled, stressed out, anxious, addicted collection of souls who tend to forget that – contrary to what we might think at any given time – the world does not revolve around our particular needs, opinions, beliefs, and interests? I wonder this! And I wonder when was the last time I remembered with intention that the universe is far deeper, more complex, more mysterious, more astonishing than I can even imagine. Maybe I had this passing thought two days ago, maybe a week ago. I would like to be remembering this all the time, because it matters, the lenses through which we experience our lives!

As long as humans believe ourselves to be the most valuable life on the planet, existing outside the systems network of all life – the living web – then not only will we will continue to exploit the earth and waters (and air) for our own use, we will continue to exploit one another. Here’s why. We are an anthropocentric bunch, believing and behaving as though the world revolved around us. We are the most important. It’s not a great stretch, then, for some humans to believe and behave as though they are more important than other humans. It’s called privilege. These particular humans believe that all humans revolve around them, and that they have license to exploit the less important ones. Hence the great and growing greater imbalances of power, of wealth, education, opportunity, material possessions. Hence the continuation of systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, religious and ethnic profiling, etc.

This is precisely why I can say, with good reason, that our injustices and social ills begin with our not knowing our proper place within and intrinsic to the web of life. If we could get that straight, everything else would follow.

I’ll give you an example. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals, for example, are worthy, but they name care of the environment as the second to last, as though the environment were something other than the very crucible in which justice is forged.

When I speak of justice (or true democracy) these days, I am always offering my thanks to Terry Tempest Williams who speaks of it in this way: The open space of democracy provides justice for all living things – plants, animals, rocks, and rivers, as well as human beings.

A Vocabulary Lesson ~ Ecotone (Sometimes ecotome)

The ecological work we need to be doing isn’t really coming from people of churches or from those outside churches, at least not with the urgency it requires. Take churches, for example, especially Mainline churches. This is from a 2008 article in the Boston Globe. “(yet) Protestant denominations are leaving many of their small churches open, allowing for a sizable number of struggling, even moribund, congregations with minimal programming and part-time clergy.”

Mainline churches are pretty much about the business of trying to keep their clergy from bolting and trying to prop up their buildings. What’s left might go to outreach, but even so, the environment falls pretty much to the bottom of the list as though the environment were some distinct category, which, of course, it isn’t. Church outreach tends to be more about food banks and soup kitchens and clothing drives. Patchwork, and charitable, yes, but not systemmic.

The ecological work – for the most part – happens outside churches, through environmental groups like Defenders of Wildlife or Oceana or Biogems, Sierra Club – there are many. The work they do is essential, yet they are not likely to turn around the planet’s destruction. And here’s why. All they (we) can do is react. The insults and assaults to the earth community, including its subset of humans – particularly humans who fall outside the mainstream – come so fast, and so furiously, one on top of another on top of another, that all we can do is react, try to put out fires, try desperately to bandage up one wound then another would.

Environmental groups are working reactively. And they do it by pulling on our heartstrings. Pictures of aerial gunning of wolves, polar bears unable to swim to the next ice cap, sea turtles slick with oil.

What we don’t have is room to breathe. The space between . . . is breathing room, room to shed ourselves of all that puts us on one side of the aisle or the other. The space between . . . is where our collective imagination can do its work. The space between . . . is where education can happen, where education must happen.

For example. Take the Greater Yellowstone area. Here’s why you don’t want to kill all the wolves. If there are no wolves, the elk overpopulate. Too many elk, the aspen and willow seedlings have no chance to mature. No willows, the beaver go, leaving their dams untended. No dams, the wetlands disappear. Wetlands disappear, the land dries up.. The land dries up, the riverbanks erode. This is not just about wolves on one side of the aisle and sheep on the other. We can’t get to the problem this way. It’s not possible.

Carl Safina – in his book The View From Lazy Point – makes reference to “the whole enterprise” and I am grateful to him for this language. The space between . . . makes room for the whole enterprise. Systems. Systems at work.

My friend Paul Michalec reminds me that the space between . . . has its physical counterpart in the natural world. The word is ecotone. I wish I had had this word in my vocabulary when I was writing this book. But I didn’t. Picture a forest as it moves down the mountainside and abuts a vast wildflower meadow. It’s not like one moment you’re in trees, the next, in tall grasses. An ecotone is the area between different habitats, and it contains elements of both. It’s – literally – the space between . . .

In fact, not only does the ecotone contain elements of both forest and meadow, neither forest nor meadow could survive without the ecotone. In fact – this is where it gets even more exciting, found in the ecotone are life forms that aren’t of the forest and aren’t of the meadow. The ecotone – the space between . . . is the ground for something altogether new. What I am calling the space between . . . is basically a form of bio-mimicry. Isn’t there something we can learn from this?

One would hope! Think of the space between. . . as an ecotone, a safe space in which people of churches and people not of churches can meet to consider in a proactive, not reactive way, the many urgent crises that demand our attention, and in particular – the one from which all other ills emerge – the deteriorating health of our planet.

The question is, “how do we get there?”

From an earlier vocabulary lesson comes the word  apophatic. We have to learn all this vocabulary, by the way. It’s essential to learn it for the urgent conversations we need to be having.

Literally it translates as knowledge learned through negation, but that doesn’t put it in any recognizeable context. To enter the space between . . . to live in the ecotome, is first and foremost to lose our sense of human entitlement, to release our anthropocentric insistence that the world exists to serve us.  To live in the ecotome is also to release or let go of the things that we all have such righteous opinions about. In the context of the space between . . . , apophatic is all about unlearning. Not only a challenge to our assumptions – which is a given – but an actual releasing or unlearning of them.

For people of churches, the apophatic journey has to do with the release of doctrine and exclusive forms of ritual practice. For people not in churches, maybe it requires a release of antipathy, and indifference, even anger. Maybe an unlearning of the notion that churches have laid claim to the sacramental and ritual life. The apophatic journey – the way of release and unlearning – is a spiritual practice and discipline, by the way, and it doesn’t necessarily come easily.

But, if you think about the polarity of our conversations these days, if you think about the vitriol, the uncivil discourse, the discounting and dismissing of one another, the distortions, even outright lies, it ought to be fairly clear that we’re lost. We’re stuck. We need to find ourselves, and what I’m suggesting is that we need to find ourselves in the space between . . . a space which is neither one thing or another, but of both – a new thing. A new thing we haven’t yet seen. As with any ecotone, this is where the growth and transformation is going to happen.

Restoring the Earth Community ~ A New Perspective, Vol. One

It’s more difficult than I would have thought to make a YouTube video. Still, I think there were only ten takes involved, and not more than four or five late night editing sessions. sierra leone . Oh, and the computer crashes. . . I’ve decided to make a series of them for several reasons, figuring that it’s easier for a skeptic to watch a ten minute clip before s/he decides it’s worth buying my book. More important, the concepts carried in my book are dense, I’ve been told, and I believe it. And so the intent of this series is to lay groundwork for the conversation I am hoping to generate. Here’s the first of a series of five or six, and I’m hoping that others will add their comments to Judy’s response below (offered with her permission) and my comment which follows.

How do we even wrap our minds around the unlikely task of healing the earth?

I imagine the people reading this blog post are like me – little, seeming powerless, often paralyzed, and wondering what it is we’re trying to make right. So, I believe in little steps, in building community, in changing hearts.

For Reflection

Not long ago a video was posted by one of my Facebook friends. (This has a happy ending.) A dog, attempting to cross a very busy eight lane highway was struck and left lying in the middle of the lanes during a heavily trafficked time of day.

No one stopped, no one could. Another dog, undaunted (although I wonder . . . ) made his way to the wounded animal, and, with his own paws, dragged the injured dog across several lanes of traffic, to safety. What I wonder is this: what would it be like if humans understood our connection to the earth community with this kind of unquestioning – even innate – understanding that we are to help one another, no matter which form a life takes? As you go about your day and the days to come, think on this – “I am deeply connected to everything I see, hear, touch, and equally connected to what I am not seeing or hearing.”

What difference will it make in your life to know that the mouse, hiding in your woodpile, shares your life, your chemistry, your insistence on life. Write me about this; it’s very important.

Toward a Deep Ecology: First Steps

Pat Hatfield, a naturalist and teacher in the Ohio state park system, conducts workshops for women who are wanting to reconnect to the natural world. She describes one workshop in particular with these words: “A creepy-crawly adventure in the grasses of the field. Bring journals, sketch pads, wear long pants.” Once the participants are gathered, Hatfield instructs them to “scatter into the grasses slowly and carefully. Feel your way until you find your spot. Sit down and stay there. Stay there until you know that spot, know it with all your senses. Write, record, or draw your experience, no matter what it is: boredom, awe, fear, curiosity, disgust, amazement.

One woman in the group whose name is Susan has a phobic terror of spiders. How ironic that her spot included within its circumference a large garden spider in her web. Susan later described the experience this way: “I sat totally far away from this yellow-black striped thing that was in the middle of a huge web. The colors and the size of the thing really got me. I don’t know when I’ve ever been so terrified. Once I sat down, I was paralyzed. All I could do was just sit there and wait for my heart attack. I had my eyes squinched shut.

“I decided as long as I couldn’t move anyway, I might as well look at this thing in its web,” Susan said. “So I opened my eyes. The weird thing is that when I looked, I calmed down. But I was too far away. I made some little scoots on my butt towards her—see, I’d already decided it was a ‘she’—until my heart pounded again. And I stopped, and my heart stopped pounding. And so I did this again and again. I got really close to her. She never moved. I got really close. I was certain she’d launch an attack.”

But the spider didn’t launch an attack. In fact, the spider did absolutely nothing. “She never moved, not a flicker.” Susan noted, “And here’s the weirdest thing of all. This is so weird. In the few minutes I sat with her, I got to know that spider. I got to know her web. I even got to know each tall grass that helped support it. Each one. And I forgot all about my fear, and I wasn’t afraid.”

Children are taught to fear such as spiders, snakes, insects of all kinds (except ladybugs, maybe). It tends toward the irrational. Not only that, such fears do significant harm; how many of us would kill a garden spider or behead a blacksnake, rather than share habitat? I don’t like it? I am afraid of it? Kill it. And so it goes that the lives of creatures intrinsic to the earth community yield in the face of human self-interest. The fact that there is an ecocentric perspective continues to elude us, and because we rarely challenge our sense of human privilege, we continue put our planet at risk.

I love Pat Hatfield’s story. It reminds me that all of us, young or adult, can learn mindfulness; mindfulness – I think of it as deep watching, deep listening, paying attention – tends to move us into deep wonder and mystery. Not only are we capable of mindfulness, I have come to consider mindfulness as moral action.

For Reflection

There is something else Pat Hatfield teaches, the difference between simply narrating an experience and actually giving it away. She describes it like this: “By giving the experience to someone, or several someones, the experiences multiply themselves. There is no shortage. When you give something like this away, you still have it, so there is only the multiplication.” In what sense is Susan giving away this story? How might it impact the people who receive it? Consider your own story telling. Is it simply about you? Or might there be a learning to give away?

I’m thinking that it’s time to go outside. Find a spot – at the base of a tree or at the edge of a stream or pond – even in a city park. Sit yourself down in a comfortable enough way. If it suits you, take a tablet for writing or drawing. On the other hand, there is value in your simple presence. Watch, and listen. Pay attention.

When you come back, tell someone about the experience. Frame the story so that you are able to give the experience away.

A Vocabulary Lesson ~ Environmentalism

Environmentalism . . . stewardship . . . going green . . . care taking . . . sustainability . . . these are good words, right? Well, yes and no. They carry a certain beneficence, I suppose. But often the beneficence they carry is illusory.  The thread that links them is their human-centeredness; the word is anthropocentric, roughly translated, regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence. This section of the blog will illuminate and perhaps challenge each of the concepts above as we allow them to emerge from a human-centered or anthropocentric perspective.

When we speak out about environmentalism, for example, we might lull ourselves into thinking that we are talking of the health of ecosystems, or a single planetary ecosystem. Strictly speaking, we are not. To talk about the environment is to talk about that part of the natural world (as though the natural world were somehow other than ourselves) which surrounds, or impacts, or otherwise engages humans.

The Achilles heel of all environmental efforts is that they succeed or fail at the whim, the convenience, the perceived need, desire, or self-interest of the humans undertaking them. A specific example. In May, 2009, grey wolves in the Northern Rockies lost their endangered species protected status for the second time that year. The factors cited: farmers want to protect their livestock, hunters want to be able to shoot wolves; people are scared of wolves and other large predators; and contractors want to be able to build in the northern Rockies.  It was – and remains – all about the humans, and has nothing to do with healthy ecosystems.

I’m including the link from the Los Angeles Times, but this section makes the point.

When we exterminated wolves from Yellowstone in the early 1900s, we de-watered the land. That’s right; no wolves eventually meant fewer streams, creeks, marshes and springs across western landscapes like Yellowstone where wolves had once thrived.

The chain of effects went roughly like this: No wolves meant that many more elk crowded onto inviting river and stream banks. A growing population of fat elk, in no danger of being turned into prey, gnawed down willow and aspen seedlings before they could mature. As the willows declined, so did beavers, which used the trees for food and building material. white cloud . When beavers build dams and make ponds, they create wetland habitats for countless bugs, amphibians, fish, birds and plants, as well as slowing the flow of water and distributing it over broad areas. The consequences of their decline rippled across the land.

Meanwhile, as the land dried up, Yellowstone’s overgrazed riverbanks eroded. Spawning beds for fish silted over. Amphibians lost precious shade. Yellowstone’s web of life was fraying.

The problem is, environmentalism exists at the whim of humans. In other words, environmentalism, strictly speaking, is anthropocentric. I am not saying that environmentalism has no value; it does. But environmental commitment tends to have value only until the environmental action in question collides with human self-interest.

For Reflection

I am interested in hearing from you as to the ways in which our political battles – over protected lands and species, over Environmental Protection regulations, over environmental law, to name just a few – parallel the self-interests of the decision makers. How is it that our politics, particularly in the U.S., have lost their connection to what I want to call good earth citizenry. Are there times in our history that the call and commitment to responsible citizenry overrode what we see today as destructive and unmanageable polarity; are there moments that we actually considered the health of planet’s ecosystem as the tapestry against which human self-interest might be evaluated?

This is the making of a history lesson as it shapes the intersection of politics and ecology.