Friends Journal, Quaker Spaces, and Civic Ecology

I’m grateful for the community we have at North Valley Friends, and I wrote about it for the August issue of Friends Journal. This issue focused on the theme of Quaker Spaces, and in my article, “It’s the Spirit that Makes It Beautiful,” I shared about how our worship space isn’t the most up-to-date, or even the most Quakerly, but we have some really great things going on in both our indoor and outdoor spaces.

I ran across the call for submissions as I was working on a course in civic ecology last semester, and I was thinking about how many of the things we do at North Valley are listed as civic ecology actions that community groups might do. Therefore, when I heard the call for sharing about “Quaker Spaces,” I thought about how our “space” isn’t just our indoor worship space, but includes all the land we steward. I was also working on interviewing individuals about watershed discipleship, and I listened to several of them share about the history of indigenous people in their region, something I had been thinking about, too, so I added some of that into the piece.

In addition to what I wrote for Friends Journal, the full text of which you can read here, I’ll share some of the reflections I wrote for my civic ecology class. This was an annotated bibliography entry on the following article:

Krasny, Marianne E., Alex Russ, Keith G. Tidball, and Thomas Elmqvist. “Civic Ecology Practices: Participatory Approaches to Generating and Measuring Ecosystem Services in Cities.” Ecosystem Services 7 (2014): 177–86.

Krasny, et al. (2014) define civic ecology as “local environmental stewardship actions taken to enhance the green infrastructure and community well-being of urban and other human-dominated systems” (177). These practices are “active, hands-on stewardship or restoration of nature by a group of individuals” (177).

In this article, they are suggesting the importance of measuring the impact of civic ecology practices on ecosystem services. Since they recognize that most locations practicing civic ecology won’t have the scientific know-how or the time and human-power to do extensive scientific data gathering and analysis, they suggest three different ways that community groups could engage in measurement of ecosystem services benefits after their civic ecology practices occur.

First, practitioners can do citizen science measures of biodiversity. These can be measures of species presence, abundance, or diversity in a number of ways, and studies could be defined by scientists in a large-scale, data-gathering call.

Second, practitioners could measure ecosystem function. Although these functions are harder for normal people to measure on their own compared to counting species presence/diversity, they could work in collaboration with scientists, or use simple software that can help them gather data with more accuracy. Also, Krasny, et al. (2014) suggest that the data gathered could have to do with cultural services, since social systems are part of the overall social-ecological system.

Third, practitioners could gather data about the value of ecosystem services. They may not be able to measure and put a dollar amount on larger-scale impacts, but they can measure the small-scale value that individuals put on their time in nature, their ability to grow healthy organic food they otherwise couldn’t afford, or have access to city parks. This data can be gathered through open-ended or Likert surveys.

This article was interesting because it makes me feel like my congregation is already engaging in civic ecology: in the last decade, we put in a walking trail around our property and the public is invited to use it. We did this in collaboration with the city’s park and recreation district. We also put in a large outdoor labyrinth that provides spiritual services, which is one of the measures of cultural ecosystem services Krasny, et al. (2014) suggest (182). Around the labyrinth we planted native species (and some non-native ones) to serve as a berm, as well as to attract and provide sustenance for pollinators. We also have a community garden for the provisioning of people. We sought and found a local nursery willing to donate a number of trees to line the trail in areas that currently have few trees, and we planted them as a community. All of these provided opportunities for our community members to participate in these practices actively. We also provide the space for “passive recreational use” (182), and many people come to walk or run the trail: alone, with their dogs, or with family or friends. This provides ample opportunity for the development of a stronger social network, not to mention personal psychological and physical wellbeing from contact with nature and from exercise.

It’s also amazing to notice in myself the movement in environmental/ecological identity (which I learned about last semester in conservation psychology) as I take on this label as someone who has already participated quite a bit in civic ecology practices, and who is part of a community who has done so. Finding and calling out the things that we’re already doing and framing them as pro-environmental behaviors (De Young, 2014), and even as part of something larger, like the movement for civic ecology, really does make me feel like I’m already farther along on the path toward my goal than I had thought. This has much to do with my work on hope, too: finding the stories of success from my past (or our collective past) to base our next steps on can give us the sense of self-efficacy to feel like we will be able to find the motivation to move toward our hoped-for goal. It’s also helpful to see that we’re already oriented in this direction, and even taking steps in this direction, so finding the momentum to continue doesn’t feel as daunting.

I can see my congregation possibly doing some sort of value measurement survey of people who come to use the trail and labyrinth (we’ve already done informal ones, when the pastor, for example, asks people she sees along the trail how they heard about the trail and how often they use it, just to make conversation and out of curiosity). Seeing this as a part of the ecosystem services that this space provides is kind of a novel thought to me.

Also, if we count spiritual connection to the space as one type of ecosystem services, this has broad implications for how communities of faith might be able to envision themselves and their work as contributing to ecosystem services. If we can start there, and they can have that experience of suddenly seeing their environmental identity through a different lens like I just did (regarding how much my community has already done in enacting civic ecology practices), even if their community isn’t very far along that path, they can still see themselves as part of the whole. I think it’s great to think of cultural and spiritual connections as part of ecosystem services. It values the contributions of all different types of people and organizations, and places us on a similar trajectory, rather than feeling like we need to reorient in order to participate in civic ecology.

Photo credit: Paul Bock

Bibliography:

De Young, Raymond. “Some Behavioral Aspects of Energy Descent: How a Biophysical Psychology Might Help People Transition through the Lean Times Ahead.” Frontiers in Psychology; Cognitive Science 5 (November 2014): 1–16.

Krasny, Marianne E., Alex Russ, Keith G. Tidball, and Thomas Elmqvist. “Civic Ecology Practices: Participatory Approaches to Generating and Measuring Ecosystem Services in Cities.” Ecosystem Services 7 (2014): 177–86.

GreenFaith retreat 2, day 2

Today at our GreenFaith retreat included a presentation and discussion with Erin Lothes Biviano, professor at the College of St. Elizabeth, about what motivates faith-based individuals and congregations to act on their environmental beliefs. This was fascinating and I want to read more of her work. We did read two of her articles: “Worldviews on Fire: Understanding the Inspiration for Congregational Environmentalism” (Cross Currents, December 2012), and “Come with Me Into the Fields: Inspiring Creation Ministry Among Faith Communities” (New Theology Review, March 2014).

I was inspired by her work methodologically, because she’s using social sciences methods (semi-structured focus groups) to measure behavior in faith-based communities, which is something I’ve been thinking about how to do. I’m excited to see that she does well-designed and -analyzed qualitative social sciences research, and she applies it in a way that is useful for those who are attempting to help lead faith communities.

I’m also excited to read about her work, which focuses on analyzing what seems to motivate faith communities toward pro-environmental behavior change. What she’s saying is somewhat different from what the field of conservation psychology says about how to motivate the average American (although there is quite a bit of overlap), so it would be interesting to look into this deeper and figure out if this means that communities of faith are motivated by something different from the general population, or if she’s identifying something different for other reasons.

In her Cross Currents article, she found that the motivating factors regarding whether or not a congregation is willing to engage in pro-environmental action include: level of scientific literacy, recognizing the interdependence of all things (including society, economy, ecology, and spirituality), a core community commitment to social justice, and the willingness to open themselves to an ever-widening understanding of God.

Interestingly, for my own work on critical hope, she said that “hope was not a universally driving factor” (p. 509). However, she then gave a quote that focused on someone’s explanation that they weren’t optimistic, and in my own work (and the psychological literature) I’m differentiating between hope and optimism. Hope is much different from optimism. I think hope includes struggle, and the real possibility of failure, whereas optimism is just a vague wish or desire, and doesn’t require personal responsibility or work. What she describes is that people in faith communities are willing to take action steps regardless of their optimism about their goal being completed, and in my opinion, this is the definition of hope. We don’t know whether it will happen, but there’s a possibility of it, and we choose to hope against hope that our steps will lead us there, or at least closer. We refuse to give in or give up, and taking those steps are in fact our enacted hope.

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Eric Lind, Constitution Marsh director. I love how they have the watershed painted on the wall.

OK, enough about that, although of course I could talk about it for days, because it was fascinating! The next part made for better pictures, however.

In the afternoon, we went to Constitution Marsh Audubon Center & Sanctuary. It’s just up the road from the Garrison Institute on the Hudson River. Eric Lind, the center director, showed us around and told us some of the environmental history and ecology of the region. Constitution Marsh is about 50 miles from the ocean, but it’s still a tidal marsh with salt water coming in with the tide, creating an unique habitat that far inland. It’s a beautiful location! They have about 300 acres they’re conserving, providing habitat for many songbirds, butterflies, and other species.

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A creek flowing into the Hudson River at Constitution Marsh

Although Lind doesn’t think of himself as a particularly religious person, he talked about the marsh as a confluence between the environment and ethics. One can see in this marsh the negative impact of humanity on the landscape: the pollution from a former battery factory across the river, the impact of the straight line of railroad cutting across in an area that’s used to mushy and undulating boundaries, the latter of which provide much better wildlife habitat, and the attempts to dredge the river and build up the marsh in order to farm that land. Add to that the fragmentation of habitat resulting in fewer birds and other species migrating and surviving in place over the years, and human beings have hIMG_20160524_151713869_HDRad a huge negative impact in that place.

But the river is so resilient that it’s able to flourish in that area now, given a bit of human positive attention. It is evident that Lind loves this place and its creatures, and he loves himself when he’s
there. He told us that he’s really selfish, because he just wants all these creIMG_20160524_154641119_HDRatures to flourish partially for his own enjoyment, and maybe that’s anthropocentric, but it’s also a recognition that he’s part of the whole picture. He’s not just saving these creatures because he should, out of obligation. He’s not saving them because they serve some utilitarian function. He’s creating space for them because he loves them, and he’s participating in that space with them.

He had us stand by the creek and just listen, and he told us that that’s the beginning of both inquiry and mystery. When he’s still and listens, he thinks of a lot of questions, and this is the scientific portIMG_20160524_160313389 (1)ion: he can go out and start learning answers. But there’s also the mystery, the part that draws him deeper and gives him peace, the part that makes him thoroughly human, to just listen, to be attentive, and to appreciate.

While walking in the rocky hills around the marsh and out on the boardwalk over the marsh, we heard numerous bird calls and saw red wing blackbirds, goldfinches, and some other birds I didn’t recognize, partially because I’m not from here, and partially because I’m pretty bird-illiterate. One of the other employees set up a telescope so we could see a bald eagle nest, and we watched IMG_20160524_220721an eagle chick for a while, then saw an adult eagle perched in a nearby tree. We also saw an eagle fly out over the marsh. Lind said New York had been down to one breeding pIMG_20160524_160900513air in the ’70s, but their population has rebounded since then, due to the care of a biologist who hand-raised eagle chicks from Alaska (without imprinting) and released them in New York.

The marsh was a beautiful place to go and listen and watch and be aware. Fletcher Harper, the GreenFaith director, asked at the end, “What would it be like if our congregations went out once a month and spent time at a marsh, or a similar place in your region?” I know that Wilderness Way in Portland, OR does this, spending time at a local conservation space every third Sunday of the month. It’s something I’d like to experiment with.

Hope

I embarked on my journey toward a PhD in environmental studies in the summer of 2014. With a background in psychology and theology, this academic trajectory perhaps does not look like a straight line, but to me it makes perfect sense. I grew up hearing stories of Quaker ministers who stood up courageously for the social justice causes of their day, based in love of God and neighbor, and I wondered what they would do if they lived in my time. While I care about many issues, I felt drawn to working on something in which I am directly complicit. Rather than going to another country to intervene in their conflicts, I recognized that my own culture and way of life contributes to plenty of problems, and I can focus on my own shortcomings rather than trying to take the proverbial speck out of my neighbor’s eye. The way we treat our planet came into ever-increasing focus in my own life as my area of passion, as well as the area that needs our most immediate attention in this particular historic time. It represents the place where my greatest passion and the world’s greatest need intersect, to paraphrase Frederick Beuchner (Wishful Thinking). My goal is two-fold: to live in a way that speaks to what it means to be a human being following the Creator in the world today, which I believe must include a sense of integration into the network of creation in a way that is sustainable and just, and to participate in a dynamic community of faith that inspires courage and meaning for lived praxis of God’s love.

Therefore, my questions regarding my PhD work go something like this: What do theologians and people of faith have to offer to the environmental conversation? And what can theologians and people of faith learn from those working on environmental issues?

A piece of the puzzle came to me last summer: hope. Those involved in the environmental movement often have a difficult time hoping that their environmental actions can make a difference. Those in faith communities tend to express hope in something, albeit often something ethereal or other-wordly. But the more I got thinking about the concept of hope, the more it seemed like an important place to focus my research and writing. Our culture expresses a marked lack of hope, in my experience.

Question upon question came to my mind, including the following:

  • What is hope? Is it a feeling, a choice, a trajectory, a character trait?
  • Where does it come from?
  • What is the difference between hope and optimism?
  • Is hope something people have or don’t have, or something that can be learned?
  • What is the role of community in hope?
  • Is hope possible in a situation of suffering?
  • Is hope rational?
  • What happens when we hope and the thing we’re hoping for doesn’t come to pass?
  • Is it better to hope, or not to hope and not to feel let down?
  • What is a stronger motivator: hope, fear, or some other characteristic or emotion?
  • In the environmental movement, what would hope look like and how could we encourage people to hope?
  • If we are able to encourage more people to hope about our future, environmentally speaking, what might be the outcomes?

Last semester, I took two courses: Conservation Psychology and Ecotheology & Environmental Ethics. Through these courses I studied, among other things, the psychology of hope and meaning, theology of hope, political and liberation theology, and liberation pedagogy, in which field I learned about critical hope. I will share my journey of working through these concepts and thinking through what my dissertation will look like here, as well as sharing thoughts and insights about my attempts to enact my environmental concerns in ways consistent with my faith.