January 17, 2008

Krista's Journal: Waking Up to Our Immediate Surroundings

January 11, 2007

I'm wary of "isms" — systems and stances that, however lofty, inevitably bracket some of us out. Environmentalism, critical as it is to the world we inhabit now, is one of those words. But, in this program we cross the boundaries that word has acquired, fairly or not, in our cultural imagination. The notion of ecology is so essential, so natural, and we discover two people who mirror that fact. And they haven't waited for climate change to transform their immediate worlds. Cal DeWitt tells an interesting story about the origins of the word environment. It emerged, he says, from a term coined by Geoffrey Chaucer: environing. This became a linguistic way of distinguishing our human selves from the world around us. Previously, DeWitt avers, human beings had thought of themselves as part and parcel of the same creation. At best, this implied a certain responsibility and relationship that has been absent in the modern Western approach to the world. Western Christianity itself has, ironically, been a potent historical driver of enmity between humanity and nature. But after careful study, Cal DeWitt found the Bible to be an "ecological handbook." And he has long put it into practice in this way, beginning with the marsh beneath his feet. There is something charming and also slightly foreign as DeWitt begins to describe the Waubesa wetlands which he has tended and where he has lived in community with others for over three decades. He was talking about sustainability, and fostering environmental consciousness, long before these things were fashionable, and he's done so as a lifelong evangelical Christian. All that while, he's reached out to his fellow evangelical Christians to reconcile faith with the hard science of conservation. DeWitt also points out that the stereotype of environmental activism as liberal and secular has never been accurate. Devout evangelicals have long been in positions of environmental leadership. And on this program last year, the chief representative in Washington D.C. of the National Association of Evangelicals, Richard Cizik, stunned many of our listeners with his passionate declaration that he is a "convert" to the science of climate change. As it turns out, Cal DeWitt was one of the organizers of the global gathering that exposed Cizik and others to the science of climate change. DeWitt describes an intriguing theory of his this hour, that evangelical and charismatic Christianity may be better equipped than other Christian traditions to change and galvanize and lead on an issue like this. Majora Carter could not be more different from Cal DeWitt in some ways, though her passion for the place of her origin, the South Bronx, matches his love of the Town of Dunn, Wisconsin. Unlike DeWitt, Carter is not a religious activist. But her work drives at the deep interaction between social ethics, economic injustice, and ecological hazard. The South Bronx, where she grew up, is one of New York City's poorest neighborhoods and historically, perhaps, its most environmentally toxic. And she is a new breed of environmentalist — home grown, without formal expertise, yet crafting wildly successful, concrete initiatives from the raw realities of urban life. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s when the South Bronx was literally burning, Majora Carter felt she had no option but to flee. She went to Wesleyan University and trained as a visual artist. She moved home again almost by accident, out of money and heading to grad school. But her study of art brought her back to a ravaged, demoralized community with fresh eyes, insistent on beauty. For Carter, environmentalism is organically about people knowing there is beauty within themselves and expecting to see that beauty reflected in the world around them. This knowledge, she says, is especially hard for poor people in a beleaguered — and polluted — community to grasp. But by way of the remarkable organization she founded, Sustainable South Bronx, it is taking visible hold in the form of "cool roofs" and a restored riverfront and the creation of "green collar" jobs. In broad perspective a better ecology in the South Bronx will be good for the rainforest in Brazil, Majora Carter knows. But her work must begin with ecologically bound issues that touch the people around her in the here and now, such as asthma and obesity and unemployment. These realities are intimately linked with environmentalism in its most comprehensive, sustainable sense, as Majora Carter is showing. And so from a very different angle of approach, she too is challenging Chaucer and Western civilization's separation between the world out there and the worlds of our lives. Many in the West are waking up to the environment as new information emerges about a possible impending catastrophe. I am struck, as I speak with Cal DeWitt and Majora Carter, that they and their communities woke up to their immediate ecologies by way of falling in love with the places they inhabit and setting out to make them better. In the process, they are expanding and enriching our collective experience and understanding of environmentalism. This same process is obviously very much alive with great variety across the country, as stories our listeners have sent us in recent weeks document. This is environmentalism infused with creativity and human passion within the very particular and compelling realities of our communities, wherever we live.

Recommended Reading

This book is a marvelous resource of creative and moral thinking about the intersection of theology, environmental sciences, and human life. It includes essays by Cal DeWitt as well as Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, and serious scientists and religious thinkers.

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is founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx. She was awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" in 2005.

is a professor at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His books include Earth-Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues.