Q&A with John Wear: The Role of the Transformative Experience in Environmental Stewardship
05/02/11 by Juanita Teschner
John Wear, director of the Center for the Environment at Catawba College, delivered the keynote address April 29 at the three-day 2011 Moravian Environmental Stewardship Conference in Laurel Springs, N.C. The conference, co-sponsored by Laurel Ridge and the former Commission on Church & Society, was for congregations and stewardship leaders from across the Moravian Church’s Southern Province.
He recently talked with Juanita Teschner, the Center’s director of communications, about his speech and his experience at the conference.
Q: I understand that your presentation at the Moravian Environmental Stewardship Conference centered on transformation. What does that have to do with being a good environmental steward?
A: Often it takes a transformative experience to change behaviors. Aldo Leopold, the most influential conservationist of the 20th century, is a good example. He had an experience as a young man that transformed the way he saw humans’ relationship to natural systems. Initially, he viewed nature as a resource, something to be used by man. In fact, at one time he thought we should kill all the predators to increase the game for hunters. He was so committed to this approach that, in 1920, he vowed to persevere until the last wolf or lion in New Mexico was dead.
He had been on the job in the Forestry Service only two weeks when he killed a she-wolf. He witnessed what he called “the fierce green fire” in the wolf’s eyes dim and finally go out. He said, “I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.”
That experience transformed Aldo Leopold. He began to view nature not as a resource for man to exploit but as a community to respect. He said, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us; when we see land as a community to which we belong, then we begin to use it with love and respect.”
Q: Why is it so important to change our behaviors now?
A: So many things are converging in our world that impact the way we use the earth’s resources and our lives. Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, talks about things like the rise of the Internet and all the avenues of communication that followed it, along with the fall of communism, as having “flattened” the world. He notes that 200 million people in India and China alone were lifted out of abject poverty in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Now we have millions more who want to live what is known as the American Dream. This accelerates the global demand for energy, natural resources and food.
Q: What factors are important in solving these issues and what role do transformative experiences play?
A: We assume innovation and technology will solve the grave issues we face in this world, but this will only get us part way. We as citizens of this world have to have a much deeper understanding, resolve and commitment to solve what lies ahead. That level of resolve and commitment does not just happen. It is not something we can simply ask people to do and expect change. Most often, there is some transformative experience or experiences that cause one to choose that path toward a greater commitment to environmental stewardship. In my own work, I have observed many instances where people have suddenly come to a level of realization that changed their life direction and their thinking about the importance of environmental stewardship.
Q: Can you give us an example?
A: One interesting example occurred in relation to a conference on Faith, Spirituality and Environmental Stewardship that our Center for the Environment held on the Catawba campus back several years ago. Our Center has been involved in hosting a number of conferences over the years. This was the first conference we had held in which people wrote on their post-conference evaluations that the experience had been “life changing” or “transformative.” Following the conference, a writer assigned by a newspaper to cover the conference began writing an extended series of articles on the conference. At the end of the series, a couple of months after the conference, she called me for an interview for the final article. I explained to her how people had written that this had been a “life-changing experience or transformative experience” and I was surprised to hear her say that that was exactly what had happened to her. This conference had set her on a new course in life – one with the type of resolve and understanding that people truly need to have if we are going to really solve what we now face on this planet today.
Q: So you’re saying that a transformative experience is critical to embarking on a path of environmental stewardship?
A. Well, in truth, most people don’t have a single event that transforms them radically. They don’t have the epiphany that redirected St. Paul and turned him away from persecuting Christians and toward being the ardent proponent of Christianity that he became. Instead, transformation, especially toward becoming a true steward of the environment, appears to be more of a journey – one that includes a multitude of events and experiences that are rooted in strong values, which include not only a strong connection to the natural world and an understanding of earth’s life support systems but also an understanding of what it means to be part of a greater community.
It has always been interesting to me to find what has brought students to our environmental degree programs at Catawba. One factor that almost all have in common is some deep connection to the natural world that they gained from one of many paths. Those paths have included time with their parents and family camping or studying nature, scouting, summer camps, hunting, fishing, or some other activities that allowed them to develop a deep connection with the natural world. More recently, we have had a significant number of young women who have entered the environmental program and whose connection with the natural world has been through their upbringing as a member of farm families. It does appear to me that a close connection with the natural world is a vital ingredient for many on their journey to becoming highly committed environmental stewards. I know it was with me.
Q: Are you witnessing that close connection with the natural world in most of your students?
A: I think it’s happening less and less. I was surprised recently when I asked a fairly large group of young people how many had ever been fishing. Very few in that group had.
We are living in a world in which the average young person faces many forces that pull them away from those opportunities to connect with the natural world. I recently witnessed this firsthand when my five-year-old grandsons asked me to join them in playing a video game. Wow! Was that game amazing! I had a great time joining them in a virtual world that was hard to leave. If I had had that game when I was their age, it might have resulted in my own life-changing experience. Unfortunately that life-changing experience might have been away from the path I ultimately took. The deep connection and understanding of the natural world that I have today would likely have been somewhat deficient.
Richard Louv, who spoke recently in Charlotte, discusses this in his book, Last Child in the Woods. He says many children in today’s world suffer from what he calls “nature deficit disorder.” They are separated from nature at an early age because they are caught up in that artificial, virtual, fantasy world that is threatening my own grandchildren. We need to look for ways to create opportunities for young people to get out and experience nature. They can’t care about something they don’t know anything about.
Q: What is the role of faith-based organizations in all this?
A person’s sense of values is an important component of that mix of ingredients required for someone to have a strong commitment toward environmental stewardship. Our faith-based communities can and have played major roles here. Understanding our roles as stewards of God’s creation is vital and is increasingly playing a greater role in many faith-based groups.
I witnessed this increased involvement following our Faith, Spirituality and Environmental Stewardship Conference several years ago. After that conference we saw a number of churches in this region initiate community garden programs, take on major energy-saving activities, incorporate environmental stewardship into Sunday School Programs, and integrate an environmental stewardship emphasis into services that included sermons and music.
Q: What did you find out about the Moravian Church’s approach at this conference?
A: I was very impressed with what the Southern Province is doing. They have offered a summer camp for youth for many years but have recently initiated a wide array of actions related to teaching youth about environmental stewardship. Their newly created EcoCamp program for youth really has the right idea. They have a newly renovated building that will be used for a Nature Center, a newly constructed passive greenhouse that requires no energy other than that provided by the sun, vegetable gardens and orchards that engage young people in learning about where their food comes from and involves them in the cultivation process. These and other activities, coupled with an emphasis on why environmental stewardship is not an option but instead an expectation for all Christians, will guide these young people in a healthy direction. It’s really the formula for creating youth with the level of commitment and understanding of environmental stewardship that we need to see throughout the world.
The Center for the Environment at Catawba College was founded in 1996 to provide education and outreach centered on prevalent environmental challenges and to foster community-oriented sustainable solutions that can serve as a model for programs throughout the country. For more on the Center and its Campaign for Clean Air, visit www.centerfortheenvironment.org and www.campaignforcleanair.org.