Does the Language Matter? A Question of Paradox

This is a question that has puzzled me for a long time, both as a clergy person and as an ecologist. The question arises from my conviction that language matters because it is formative. Whether or not we are conscious of it, language forms and shapes our attitudes, our ethics, and our behaviors. Here is the question. Is it possible to reconcile the language which calls humans to two things at once: our rightful place within the earth community, and our rightful responsibilities with regard to the health of the planet? Is it possible to find the language that can point to both?

In the year 2000, the Earth Charter Commission, begun as a United Nations initiative, released what is known as the Earth Charter. The brilliance of it lay in the recognition that ecological justice cannot be separated out from the social injustices of poverty, economic development, respect for human rights, democracy, and peace. In other words, there is no human justice outside of ecological justice; they are intertwined.

As I have read through it several times, I continue to be struck by the intricacies of language. The Charter’s first premise, that humanity is part of an intricate and vast evolving universe, suggests that humans are not separate creatures but integral to the biosphere. Yet it speaks of the resilience of the community of life and the well-being of humanity as though they were different entities. In fact, the paragraph heading reads, Earth, Our Home, and although a stretch could be made, it’s pretty evident that the our refers to the human home.

I am asking that you who might be reading this reflection not assume that I am talking against The Earth Charter, because I am not. I think it’s a terrific document. Yet I am of two minds about the language. On the one hand, the document is intended for human reflection and activism and, as such, is addressed to the humans. On the other hand, language is formative and such language that serves to distinguish humankind from other ecological systems is problematic. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and have come to the only possible conclusion: we have to learn to live in the paradox.

The language of The Earth Charter is about as careful and deliberate as any I know, which is why I begin with it. Yet the paradox, I think, cannot be resolved. It is the reality that humans have capacities distinct from all other forms, with regard to the biotic and abiotic diversity of the planet. And yet, every diverse form of which Earth consists – including the human – is subject, ultimately, to the same pressures of interdependence and interconnectivity as any other.

Having set the bar pretty high regarding this question of formative language, I would like to hold up against The Earth Charter, the language of four other documents.

The first is the bible. In the Genesis stories of Creation, we hear a couple things: one, although all creation is worthy of blessing, the humans are the Chosen, called out by God, set apart, and awarded dominion and rule over all creatures. The humans are also charged with care taking; the Church calls it stewardship. I want to say unequivocally that the language here does, in fact, matter. Stewardship implies oversight, management. It does not imply – as The Earth Charter does – that all beings are interdependent. Moreover, as the language and ethical tenets of scripture serve to dictate the shape of the worship of the church, religious assemblies are deeply imbued with a theology that cannot stand the scrutiny of the science. Humans are not called out, not the Chosen, not set apart. Whether we are biblical literalists or prefer to understand the creation stories as myth, the theology is formative. The language matters because it has formed and shaped us for millennia, even those of us (the nones) who claim no religious affiliation.

The second document is The Charter for Compassion, a global effort initiated by Karen Armstrong. Not quite as problematic as the scriptural account of creation, maybe, but its sole focus on human-to-human behavior omits two significant principles. The first, articulated so clearly in The Earth Charter, is the recognition of the interdependence and interconenctedness of every form of life. The second is the implication by omission, that compassion of human to human – that social justice human to human – can in fact be accomplished without the recognition that eco-justice (eco-compassion) and human justice (human compassion) are intricately intertwined. One cannot happen without the other. I like to think in terms of possibilities, and not many additional words, it is certainly possible to widen the embrace of compassion to include compassion for Earth.

The third document of note is The United Nations Millennium Development Goals. There are eight of them, including the eradication of poverty and hunger, universal education, gender equality, and several health provisions. Number Seven (next to last) is Environmental Sustainability, as though the environment were in some way distinct from the global conditions of poverty, ill health, hunger, inaccessibility to clean water, etc. Next to last as though the conditions of poverty and hunger could be addressed without addressing ecological healing and health. In a similar way as above, it takes very little to move from the goal of environmental sustainability as the next to last goal, to language which might allow us to understand ecological health as the ground for all the other Millennium Development Goals.

Finally, the United Religions Initiative, an effort begun in 1993 in the Episcopal Diocese of California by its bishop William Swing. I’m including this one as a solid effort to affirm the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life forms, human and non-human. The URI formed the charter for religious peace and cooperation, yet understood the delicate interconnections of the Earth Community; peace and justice cannot be separated from the health and protection of Earth.

 Therefore, as interdependent people rooted in our traditions, we now unite for the benefit of our Earth community.

We unite to build cultures of peace and justice.

We unite to heal and protect the Earth.

We unite to build safe places for conflict resolution, healing and reconciliation.

I want to say, in this brief examination of these four resources, that it is not my intention to challenge or diminish any effort for good. Maybe it would be better said that I am calling all of us to an awakening of the importance of language as it expresses a philosophy or theology. Human justice and peace cannot be accomplished without ecological justice and respect for all creation. It’s not possible. Ecological healing cannot be accomplished from a position of over-seer, particularly when the over-seer (steward) is convinced of his/her right to do upon Earth as s/he wishes. It’s not possible.

The better efforts toward justice and peace are those which make explicit the intricate interconnections of all forms, biotic and abiotic. Of these above, The Earth Charter – despite the essential linguistic paradox of this and all efforts – comes closest to a philosophy of not only of the value of all beings, but of our the essential interdependence. It’s only from this ground that we can even begin to attend to the healing of our planet.

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