The Danger of Small Steps in Creation Care

by Kendra Langdon Juskus

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

Are baby steps worthless?

“Personal change doesn’t equal social change,” says writer Derrick Jensen in a July/August 2009 Orion Magazine article that has already been addressed, at length, here at Flourish. Ever a provocative advocate for wholesale structural and societal deconstruction as the only solution to the brokenness of creation, Jensen believes that the small steps taken by many seeking to live rightly are, alone, worthless. They must, at the very least, bolster a larger surge of resistance to an oppressive economic, governmental, and cultural structure.

From this point of view, small steps are dangerous. They lure us into thinking that we are doing something helpful for creation and for our brothers and sisters, while allowing us to ignore that the whole shebang is still falling down all around us. They block the trajectory of what could be meaningful change.

But there is another instance in which small steps, of a different kind, are equally threatening. In his recent book, Tending to Eden, Plant With Purpose’s executive director, Scott Sabin, writes this:

“I was reminded of the concept of “landscape amnesia” that Jared Diamond introduces in [his book] Collapse. This has also been called the “shifting baseline syndrome.” Like the frog in a pot of water who doesn’t notice when the water is gradually heated to the boiling point, environmental changes happen so slowly that we do not recognize as they occur. We forget what things looked like originally. We can only guess what Lake Victoria must have been like 150 years ago when John Speke first laid eyes on it. Since we are unable to compare its current state with its previous state, we fail to see the degradation. However, the lake has become a shadow of its former self.

I have witnessed this effect in Southern California, where the canyons and mesas of my home have been gradually reduced to a few thin slivers of park in the midst of housing developments. Most of the people who live here are recent arrivals and have no idea what a beautiful place this once was. What had been here for millennia disappeared in 30 years—and we have barely missed it. Dr. Jeremy Jackson, professor of oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, writes, ‘The problem is that everyone, scientists included, believes that they way things were when they first saw them is natural.’”

Shifting baseline syndrome is an accommodation, albeit an unconscious one, to a sort of slippery slope of environmental degradation. It is a collective amnesia that can be fostered in a generational context: one generation fails to pass on its knowledge of creation down through its lineage. It can also occur on a more personal level, where individuals fail to recognize changes in their natural surroundings and often have to be prompted to remember that things were not always the way they are now.

We undergo these lapses in memory all the time, witnessing incremental changes in our landscapes that occur in such small fractions that we can hardly believe they add up to anything at all: a plot of forested land that gradually sprouts a subdivision or strip mall; the gradual takeover of our natural flora and fauna by invasive species; the widening of a road here and there until a sidewalk is supplanted by two extra vehicle lanes. Where were we when these decisions were made? How did our parks turn to concrete? What town meetings did we miss?

We take similarly small, but equally destructive, steps in our personal choices, wearing a groove in a certain level of comfort or

Are we headed anywhere?

expectation until we hardly recognize ourselves anymore. As a society, our homes and waistlines have grown tremendously in the last half century. Our time in the outdoors, at meals, and with neighbors has shriveled. As families we’re realizing that it becomes easier and easier to watch television instead of doing crafts or telling stories, to microwave meals instead of cooking them together, to Facebook or Tweet instead of talk.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, we are reminded. But once it stood, it was a behemoth.

Yet, let’s look at this concept of slow, sneaky change in just one more light. If incremental changes can be so destructive to creation and human relationship, can they be as equally restorative? Can walking or biking for transportation, as much as we are able, become routine? Can buying food and clothing made without the labor of exploited workers or the input of harmful chemicals become habit? Can neighborliness become impulse, instead of force?

As writer and farmer Ragan Sutterfield writes, “A few years ago I made an effort to eat locally, I made an effort to shop locally, I made an effort to avoid the big box stores. Now I simply eat locally, shop locally, and largely avoid the big box stores. Those choices are no longer conscious choices. They are simply the outcomes of my form of life. … This is the key to action: to make it unconscious; to change the material conditions so that what one wants is what simply happens.”

Of course steps toward health and wholeness, no matter how small, are always more difficult than steps of destruction, exploitation, and apathy. More often than not, we have to unearth good from evil, search for beauty amidst the ugly. But Christ is the one who empowers us to climb—even with our smallest steps—up the hills of hopelessness and devastation.

We are warned that small steps of stewardship are dangerously futile. But in Isaiah 58:12, we are reminded that, through his strength, God’s people are called “Repairer of Broken Walls.” Stone by stone by heavy stone, entire walls are rebuilt. When guided by the Creator, small steps can be dangerous, indeed.

Comments

  1. Interesting post although I have to disagree with the basic assertion that “personal change doesn’t equal social change.” My thinking on this has been influenced a lot by Wendell Berry and his comments in “A Continuous Harmony.” He says regarding the task of social change;

    “We are going to have to rebuild the substance and the integrity of private life in this country. We are going to have to gather up the fragments of knowledge and responsibility that we have parceled out to the bureaus and the corporations and the specialists, and put those fragments back together in our own minds and in our families and households and neighborhoods. We need better government, no doubt about it. But we also need better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities. We need persons and households that do not have to wait upon organizations, but can make necessary changes in themselves, on their own…

    A man (or woman) who is willing to undertake the discipline and the difficulty of mending his (or her) own ways is worth more to the conservation movement than a hundred who are insisting merely that the government and the industries mend their ways.

    If you are concerned about the proliferation of trash, then by all means start an organization in your community to do something about it. But before – and while – you organize, pick up some cans and bottles yourself…

    If you talk a good line without being changed by what you say, then you are not just hypocritical and doomed; you have become an agent of the disease.”

    In our family’s experience (www.yearofplenty.org), changes in the personal space of our lives have turned us into the social activists that we never would have been without that. We are by nature part of a community, and to make personal change is to impact the community. Transforming our family’s small society has reverberations in the larger society. (More on this here: http://www.yearofplenty.org/2009/12/wendell-berry-think-little-and-start-a-garden-for-real-change.html)

    Thanks for the provocative post.

  2. Awesome post. Awesome.

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