In recent years, “local” has become quite a buzzword. In the face of increasing globalization, we have seen a press in urban environments in particular, to source their food, their drink, and their products locally. “Local” may be referred to as “farm-to-table,” “fair trade,” “craft,” or “single origin.” The tastemakers have stared into the void of a global market and decided that it’s advantageous for the consumers to know who produced the goods that they consume. With this focus on the “local,” you may assume that this attention on the places that produce what we consume would help stem the global apathy concerning impending ecological crises, but it hasn’t—not in the least.
Slavoj Žižek, one of the most significant public intellectuals of our day, claims, “The way we approach the ecological problem is the greatest ideological issue we face today.” What is the ecological problem? Fundamentally, the ecological question is: How should humans interact with the world around them?
The way we approach the ecological problem is the greatest ideological issue we face today.
Žižek answers this question by claiming that there is no such thing as “nature.” His ecological position could be called ecology without nature. He essentially believes that nature, meaning a permanent, enduring thing that can we can return to, is a figment of the artist’s imagination. We have believed a lie. Nature was never a balanced and pure ecosystem, but has always been the result of terrible cosmic collisions. What does Žižek point to as the main product of these “terrible collisions” that we consume? Oil, of course.
He then proceeds from this to criticize “green capitalism.” This kind of compassionate consumerism, seen in Starbucks or TOMS, masks the deeper issue: our very act of purchasing and consuming. For a short, head-on attack of “green capitalism,” check out this video.
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According to Žižek, one of the main reasons that we can live with such naïveté in the midst of a world crumbling under the burden of environmental catastrophe—much of which is the result of our own exploitation of the earth—is because we buy into the idea that making well-informed purchases redeems us from the role we play in contributing to the growing ecological crises and global wealth disparity.
Here is where the Christian assessment and interaction can emerge. Žižek, as always, is concerned with anything that commodifies the world around him. We can come along Žižek and fight this embrace of a “transactional ecology.” A transactional ecology deals with the world around it purely through the act of consuming—it trivializes and commodifies the local. Consuming is not wrong, but Christians are called to “cultivate” as they consume. When our connection to the “local” is purely transactional, the local ecosystem (community) will suffer in turn.
Instead of this transactional ecology, we should embrace a habitational ecology. How will humans interact with the world around them? As if they would live there forever. Can we all agree we treat our hotel rooms differently from the way we treat our homes?
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When we adopt a habitational ecology, one that views the world as a home to be cultivated and not a commodity to be consumed, we can work with eager anticipation as “creation groans.” Those who approach the world this way do not fall prey to cynicism or reckless consumerism in the face of environmental abuse because they know that the green thumbed God who created it, will one day come again and make it right.
So, what are some practical ways that we can embrace the “local” with a habitational ecology? Here are a couple of suggestions.
First, we can re-burden our waste. The average person generates 4.3 pounds of waste per day, which comes out to roughly just over 1,500 pounds of waste per person, per year. Our waste is almost immediately removed from our field of perception, constantly kept out of our vision. When we do consider the reality of our waste, it’s been number-crunched. You may run across a number like the one I provided, but the reality is that we don’t have to see or handle our waste. This is not the case with our neighbors around the world, neighbors who don’t have the infrastructure or economic freedoms that we have.
We need to re-burden this waste. We need to ask ourselves where our waste is going. We need to go and see these places. We need to take our friends and children to go see these places. In his book Ecology without Nature, Timothy Morton writes, “When you think about where your waste goes, your world starts to shrink” (1). We need more of this kind of “local.”
We need to ask ourselves where our waste is going.
We also need to embrace the global solidarity in this struggle. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says in Matthew 5:45, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” In the face of ecological crises, we might say, the ice caps melt on the righteous and the unrighteous, the ozone depletes for both the poor and the rich, and our landfills are composed of both Old English and Perrier bottles. Žižek, quoting Dipesh Chakrabarty, reminds us, “Unlike in the crises of capitalism, there are no lifeboats here for the rich and the privileged” (332).
Žižek’s ecology is founded on assumptions the Christian cannot agree with, namely that “nature” does not exist. He believes that if we disregard the idea that the artists have created (and we have accepted) of a balanced and ordered world designed for the flourishing of all created things, we won’t fall into the conservationist idealism that ends in failure or the green capitalism, which is merely a mask for evil. Yet, Žižek doesn’t offer much hope for change.
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According to Wendell Berry, the weeping prophet of ecology, the way humans interact with the world around them should be motivated by “the ancient rule of neighborliness, the love of precious things, and the wish to be at home” (169). It is this “wish to be at home” that guides the habitational ecology. Regardless of your view on the “end times,” earth is where eternity happens. While return to the Garden of Eden is not a reality, restoration is the hope that guides present day labor.
And I heard from the trees a great parade
And I heard from the hills a band was made
And will I be invited to the sound?
And will I be a part of what you’ve made?
In the end, our work to steward and take care of creation is done from a place of hope. The point of the kingdom is not environmental restoration but the consummation of the kingdom will be celebrated with a sin sick and polluted world being restored to its natural condition.
What’s to stop us from joining in that “great parade” now? It’s not enough to buy local; we can live local.