If we are to understand such a vast topic as Environmental Justice, we have to understand that these words are too large and unfocused to do much more than just introduce the conversation. In searching for language that is large enough to encompass the feelings and perceptions we have towards this wild, ancient and incredibly complex earth, we run the risk of losing the very meaning we’re trying to express.
Sometimes the words loom so big that ideas about where we live become completely abstract. Discussions in science and academic (i.e rational) philosophy often go this way. “Environment” can be defined in a precise way and so can “Justice.” It can seem like this is a good way to frame an issue, but it often does so by cutting the heart out of our dynamic, living world, by pinning a butterfly onto a board, where we can look at it, test it, measure it…but not love it or have a living relationship with it. This game of being “objective” can help us see some things more clearly, but at the risk of distancing us from what is actually with us, around us, under our feet. Cleaning our windshields can help us see better and make better choices, but it can’t help us care. That has to come from somewhere else.
Alternately, the large encompassing language can jam our circuits, confuse us, scare us even. What can an “environment” be? How much does my “environment” overlap with a neighboring “environment”, and what is the right or “just” relationship between these various “environments”? How far do we have to go before there is “Justice”? These questions are too complex and too big to answer with any confidence. And so, knowing we feel something, we take the large encompassing words and water them down so that we hear them or use them as cliches, as small things more our size, that we can turn over in our hands and minds and do something about today. A restored prairie? An oak savannah (with hiking trails and benches)? A beach, a park, a mountain top? How nice! Let’s take a picture and carry a guide book in our pocket. At this size, EJ seems so much more manageable.
And yet, something about the phrase ‘Environmental Justice’ can get a conversation started. Because, in fact, many of us do have incredibly meaningful thoughts and feelings about this expansive world, that was here before us, that we are products of and present living parts of, and that will continue to exist (in some form) after we die. We have had experiences, flesh and blood, sensual and intellectual, about this complex, living, changing, moving system of life. We have a desire to express, or to understand, something that is bigger than us, something that we’re a part of but that we can’t ever ultimately control. And all of this – this odd, baffling, awesome experience – we think is important, though it can be damned difficult to say exactly why.
Great, Steve. But what is to be done? How do we get from (a) knowing that something is important to (b) putting energy into actually making changes that are good, that feel satisfying, that will last? Well, I’m no guru or Nostradamus, but I think there is a kernel of wisdom without which all active efforts to “save the planet”’ will fail. It goes like this.
Caring is 1000 times more important than being clever.
Caring takes practice. Caring is hard work.
It is difficult to care about abstract things. The best healing work happens locally, day by day.
The hard work of caring comes from taking personal responsibility. It must be personal. It is not an obligation. It’s a choice.
The reward for caring is perhaps (but not certainly) a better world. What is certain is that by practicing caring you will gain in wisdom, compassion and humility. And so will any human community that you’re a part of.
Any path to “saving the planet” will require human cultures and communities that are wiser, more compassionate and far, far more humble.
© Steve Wiencek