Monday, February 16, 2009

Looking for Nature

Here in Nebraska we have had a variety of weather the past couple of weeks, with some days inviting us to spend time outdoors, and other days leaving us happy to shelter indoors.

On one of those more inviting days, my daughter and I decided to walk at Lake Hastings, an artificial lake surrounded partly by both residential property and some city parkland. I took my camera along hoping to snap some “nature” photos – trees in early bud, birds, and so forth.

Now we weren’t walking in “nature” as I might usually think of it; we were in a city park walking on concrete, and it was difficult to get a photo without catching some bit of a park bench, disc golf basket, or sidewalk in the photo. I said something offhand about not being able to take “nature” photos there because of all the stuff made by human beings, and that got us into a discussion of what we mean by ‘nature’ and ‘natural’.

If I’m walking along a creek bed and come upon a beaver dam, I consider that an interesting part of a nature walk. Why not view the dam that human beings built to create this lake in the same way? Why distinguish human beings and our creations from everything else in the world? After all, human beings are part of God’s creation.

Human Beings and “Nature”
Setting us and our products apart from other living things tends to dispose us toward just the sort of thinking that most “nature-lovers” want to avoid, the sort of thinking that sees the rest of creation as resources for us to use however we choose for whatever human purposes we choose. It makes it easy to abuse the resources at our disposal to the point where we find ourselves now, slowly waking up to the real limits of certain resources and the negative consequences of our often careless treatment of creation. Alternatively, this distinction between human products and everything else can lead to the sort of thinking that romanticizes “nature” to the point of ignoring the needs of human beings, setting up a clash between environmentalism and issues of human justice.

We do, in fact, use words like ‘nature’ and ‘the environment’ to categorize certain experiences and issues. Even if the impact of human beings on the air, water, and web of life on this planet can now be considered to be all-pervasive, it’s still useful to be able to have words that somehow name the idea of something untouched by human activity. On the other hand, it seems very important to remember that the distinction that such words seem to describe is an artificial one. I first heard the phrase ‘built environment’ from my green architect friend Sara Sweeney, and that seems a useful way to name the distinction; it reminds us that what we have built is indeed a part of that interconnected web of everything around us that is our actual environment.

Caring for Creation and One Another
When used carefully, the phrase ‘creation care’ can point us in the same direction, reminding us that Christian stewardship extends to all of creation, including human beings and the things we produce. Caring for creation includes caring for one another. Looking at the eight Millennium Development Goals that are aimed at halving extreme poverty and disease by 2015 is one way to remind ourselves that everything around us makes up our environment; those issues we place in the environmental category when we are speaking more casually are in fact intertwined with several other issues that we might not initially place in this category called ‘the environment’. MDG #7 is the goal of ensuring environmental sustainability in the ordinary sense of the world – reversing the loss of natural resources and increasing the amount of clean water on our planet. This goal impacts other goals related to improving human health and economic development, and the way we achieve those goals will in turn impact environmental sustainability.

The Church has traditionally worked to relieve the suffering of people who are hungry, sick, or living in poverty. In today’s world, working to ensure environmental sustainability is a necessary piece of that traditional church work, and effective work in those traditional areas will include attention to environmental sustainability. When we are being careful with language and using our words with precision, we realize that religious environmentalism is a new perspective on some very traditional concerns of religious folks. And still, when it’s time to relax and retreat and look for God in the world around us, we all know what a “nature walk” is, and we know that it might be just the thing to remind us of the presence of the Creator of all that is in everything around us.

As for my photos that day at Lake Hastings: I ended up with a series of pictures from the edge of the lake. Over the winter, all sorts of plastic objects have been washed up along with the more “natural” debris of sticks and dead fish. The number of bottle caps, pieces of plastic cups, drinking straws, and bits of plastic toys was shocking, and made me wonder what effect all of this has on the fish, birds, and other living things in and around this little lake, and what effect all of that has on the human community. The plastic bits along the shore of our local lake are as much a part of our environment as are the beautiful sunsets and the snow geese that have arrived this week. Removing them from the picture too often allows us to deny the reality of the consequences of our choices, and the reality of the work we have been given as stewards of creation.