4 Key Concepts to Help Your Community Talk About Environmental Ethics

After participating in a recent panel at North Park University, NPU philosophy professor Karl Clifton-Soderstrom (KCS), sent me an essay he penned entitled* “Becoming Native” that gives a great introductory approach to how people, and specifically faith communities, might be able to approach environmental ethics.

His proposal focuses on the three concepts: place, narrative and community. To these, I would add a fourth principle borrowed from the core values of permaculture, “observe and interact.”

These ideas provide an excellent framework for thinking through controversies like Jonathan Franzen on climate change and conservation that I jumped into last week.

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In a world of highly charged political rhetoric, the essay provides language and a framework for a community discussion on environmental ethics that takes a step back from immediate policy debate. This work doesn’t diminish the importance of these other discussions, rather it provides a context in which that work might be more readily possible.

Our ability to make meaningful collective moral decision requires us to be able to first have enough common moral language to have a conversation. This might be a good place to start.

Place

The first step to discerning an environmental ethic is understanding the place we are in and from. To do this KCS argues, we need to distinguish between “place” and “space”.

Space might refer to the specific geo-spatial coordinates in which we reside or a point on a map but place is “a location with significance within which you dwell and live.”

This roots the conversation in a particular context in which you reside while also pointing to tangible goals for that place, not just ethereal conceptions. (I’ve explored some related ideas in relation to “Home” over at Center for a Just Society.)

KCS quotes Steven Bouma-Prediger to drive this point home:

We care for only what we love. We love only what we know. We truly know only what we experience. If we do not know our place—know it more than a passing, cursory way, know it intimately and personally—then we are destined to use and abuse it. For we will care for our home place only if we love it, and we will love it only if we know it, and we will know it only if we experience it firsthand.

This focus on place has the added benefit of grounding any conversation in the shared experience of the group in their mutual care and concern of the place they share together. At the same time, a group is able to come to a more in depth understanding of its own members through learning the different places each member might have their history.

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Narrative

While the Decalogue or The Beatitudes undoubtedly offer important moral guidance for ethical decision making, the power they hold in our lives are caught up in a larger schema of the stories we tell about our lives lived together.

The Sermon on the Mount is beautiful, but it is within the context of the entire story of Jesus of Nazareth that it finds its greatest power. The story of Jesus of Nazareth is compelling but it becomes even more significant when understand in the broader story of the Jewish people and the writings of the early Church.

“Narratives,” KCS says, “are those timely stories that mark your life with direction and meaning.” And these stories that we tell all have a context. They always have a setting, or “take place” somewhere. Our understanding of any story is, at its best, anemic if we don’t understand the place in which it occurred.

Would the story of Christ make as much sense without any concept of the significance of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, the Jordan River or Israel?

For a group to begin the process of discernment around environmental ethics it is imperative that they share some sort of common narrative about who they are, where they are from and where they might be going.

Community

But who or what gets included in the narrative? Our understanding of community defines who and what is a part of these ethical stories we tell.

“Community is not just your neighborhood but those with whom you identify and belong” says KCS. There are the communities we choose to be involved with, and then there are the communities we are born into.

Who is a part of our community?

While still rooted in the local, KCS argues for an expansive understanding of global community through looking at the Noahic Covenant. Most biblical covenants are made between a specific group (the Israelites) and God. The unique thing about the Noahic covenant for all Abrahamic religions is that is made between the Divine, all humans and with EVERY living creature (Genesis 9:8-12).

We are members in a community that includes non-human beings. God defined an agreement not just with human persons but creation more broadly. If the Creator declared that all God’s critters got a place in the choir, who are we to leave them out?

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Observe and Interact

This is the first principle of “permaculture” (a “design process” and “whole systems” approach to agriculture.) What it establishes is that we do not approach a complex system with a complete understanding of how our actions will affect that system. We need to act, even absent some knowledge, in order to learn about the system(s) we are trying to engage.

To determine an ethical way of being in our world, especially in regards to the environment, can be overwhelming. Still, we should never be paralyzed from beginning to implement our ethical choices, even while we don’t have everything all worked out.

To live in a moral way in these areas does not just require conviction but also practical skills and education. Learning to plant some salad greens in a window box this year might give you the practical skills necessary to grow a few more things on your own next year. In that process, you might get to know other gardeners which not only broadens your community but exposes you to new educational experiences and other traditions to draw from.

Living in a way that respects creation for the gift that it is takes practice. Our moral development requires us to begin to act, even in the absence of certain information and without assurance of desired outcomes.

In other words, it still takes a little faith.

*The full title of his essay is “Becoming Native: Grounding Environmental Ethics in our Local Places, Narratives, and Communities.” published in the Covenant Quarterly. (Spring, 2011). The essay includes helpful suggested discussion questions tailored for church groups.

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