New Definitions Of Community And The ‘Health Of The Whole’

New Definitions of Community and the ‘Health of the Whole’

© Chara Armon, Ph.D.

What if a caterpillar or lake is just as much your sibling as your human brothers and sisters?  I suggest that new definitions of community are flourishing in our time.  As I listen to numerous thinkers and activists who are now defining ‘community’ in terms of the entire life community on Earth, I sense an exciting shift afoot.  Whether reading the work of prominent scholar-activists in religion and ecology, or speaking with on-the-ground ecological activists, I am hearing the same shared value for working to nurture Earth’s life community and re-define it in the broadest terms, including insects, mountains, and salmon in our understanding of ‘community’ just as we are learning to include all types of humans.

I suggest that this re-definition of community is fundamental to the ecological sustainability transition happening worldwide.  I highlight here three sources of the re-definition.  What’s wonderful is that we could list scores of leaders with similar ideas.

In the late twentieth century, Thomas Berry articulated the idea of a Great Work that consists of transforming human culture such that we become for Earth a beneficial presence rather than an exploitive oneBerry situated human life in the context of recent scientific insights about the evolution of the universe and presented a new story of life on Earth that includes both scientific evolutionary and spiritual evidence for the interdependence of all life.  Evidence of inter-dependence suggests for Berry the corollary that “the universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be exploited” as mere economic resources.  For Berry, the life community beyond humans is to be nurtured and honored.  Comparably, a Catholic sister working in the area of religious ecological education stated to me that in conversations about environmental problems and solutions, “the global scene is now one with the local.  We are so aware in our consciousness, continuing to grow [in awareness even] into the cosmic.”  Expressing her understanding of how both science and religion reveal that all humans “are called to be people of Earth,” she noted that the key question is now, “What can we contribute to the health of the whole?”

Joanna Macy uses the term “Great Turning” to describe a phenomenon she believes is occurring through a combination of human shift of consciousness and actions that prevent further ecological damage and instigate new approaches to heal the Earth and improve human flourishing.  Macy and her co-author Young state that the Great Turning is “calling us home to community with all beings,” while multiple religious traditions contribute via “new teachings of respect for Earth and the ‘interbeing’ of all life forms.”  Great Turning ideas emphasize this interbeing or interconnected experience among all life on Earth.  Both a frog and I need clean air and clean water, for example, and are united as members of the life community by our similar dependencies.  An organic farmer in my town has discussed with me his work of nurturing the web of interconnections within the life community on his farms.  He speaks of his inter-relationship with sun and rain, soil, plants, insects, micro-organisms, and the almost countless other living components of agriculture and life on Earth.

Rob Hopkins, founder and now scholar of the Transition movement, describes Transition as a social movement that “attempts to catalyse community responses to two issues, peak oil and climate change,” and does so by re-envisioning and re-creating a community’s economic, energy, transportation, and food systems.  In a recent description of the growth of Transition Network, Hopkins notes: “All over the world people are coming together with shared concerns about shrinking supplies of cheap energy, climate change and economic downturn. They realise that high levels of energy consumption, high carbon emissions and massive environmental impact can’t go on indefinitely and they want to work in communities to build a future that is far more connected to and more gentle on the Earth than the life we lead today.”  Several hundred grassroots Transition Initiatives around the world are working to democratically assess and improve the well-being of their local human communities and their surrounding ecosystems.  A Muslim organic farmer who farms in the U.S. is thinking along similar lines.  He told me that in his view, “We’re all in it together!…So it’s simultaneously out of self-preservation and future-generation preservation, as well as simply doing the right thing, that we should collaborate together towards making things better” ecologically.

When I hear both activists and scholar-activists portraying ‘community’ as inclusive of all life on Earth, I think a shift really is occurring.  I close by asking you to reflect on this question: during your life in the 21st century, how do you define and participate in the Earth community?  Which elements of your community can you notice and embrace today?  How can you honor the mutual flourishing of your own self and the other lives around you, be they human, animal, or plant members of your community?