Deconstruction and reconstruction

“…The term ‘postmodern’ had been used sporadically by process [theology] thinkers since the 1960s. The later French movement that gave ‘postmodernism’ wide currency reinforced many Whiteheadean criticisms of modernity, but it concluded on a ‘deconstructive’ note. Whiteheadians [and other process thinkers] joined with other constructive critics of modernity in emphasizing reconstruction.” — John B. Cobb, Jr., “Process Theology,” in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Routledge, 2007), p. 561.

Unitarian Universalists are in the direct lineage of process thought, through the contributions of thinkers like Charles Hartshorne and Bernard Loomer, both of whom were members of Unitarian Universalist congregations. And for many years, our thinking emphasized the reconstructive aspects of postmodernity. More recently, though, I’ve been feeling that we Unitarian Universalists (and I include myself in this critique) have been following the French postmodernists by emphasizing the deconstructive aspects of postmodernity. This is due, I think, to our adoption of liberal political discourse, which currently emphasizes deconstruction over reconstruction — liberal politics tends to default towards breaking down stereotypes and attacking the sacred cows of the existing social order, as opposed to trying to construct a better social order. We who ally ourselves with liberal politics know what we are against, but we sometimes find it difficult to articulate what we are for.

Speaking for myself, to get out of reactive deconstruction, it’s been helpful to think about process thought. But the process thought of Hartshorne, Loomer, et al., seems a little dated these days. Maybe for us Unitarian Universalists, the work that Dan McKanan is doing around ecospirituality is one way to be reconstructive rather than deconstructive. Although, finding myself still in a deconstructive mode, I can’t help but keep looking for someone who isn’t a Western white male….

“Rethinking Weeds”

The spring/summer issue of the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin features a number of essays on ecological spiritualities. I turned first to the essay by Vanessa Chakour titled “Rethinking Weeds.” As someone deeply interested in urban and suburban ecology, I was curious to see how someone might reassess the presence of weeds.

Unfortunately, the article starts off badly. In the very first paragraph, Chakour writes:

“With the combined increases of deforestation for agricultural purposes, suburban sprawl, and mass consumption of unsustainable food sources, the presence of invasive species and so-called weeds simultaneously increases. However, negative perceptions of these plants and the ‘war on invasive species’ contribute to greater ecological damage and exacerbate an adversarial relationship with the living earth by ignoring the needs of a diverse, functioning, and abundant ecosystem.”

Well… no.

Chakour claims that the “war on invasive species” (not a phrase I’ve heard widely used by field biologists and land managers) somehow contributes to “greater ecological damage.” In my experience, this simply isn’t true. As an example, consider the invasive species Yellow Star-thistle (Centaurea solstitialis). In Edgewood Natural Preserve, San Mateo County, California, Yellow Star-thistle began to dominate several grassland areas in the preserve, crowding out endangered endemic species. Biologists and land managers developed a control protocol that involves mowing at specified times of the year, then hand-pulling remaining plants to keep them from re-seeding. The end result has been to greatly reduce the numbers of Yellow Star-thistle and to help repair a highly damaged ecosystem, leading to a rebound not just in endangered native plant species but also native insect pollinator species. If Chakour considers this to be part of the “war on invasive species,” then far from contributing to “greater ecological damage” it has led to repair and regeneration of a unique grassland ecosystem. I know some of the people who have worked for years to control invasive Yellow Star-thistle at Edgewood Preserve, and for Chakour to claim that these people “contribute to greater ecological damage and exacerbate an adversarial relationship with the living earth by ignoring the needs of a diverse, functioning, and abundant ecosystem” is both ignorant and insensitive.

Part of the problem is that Chakour does not adequately define what she means by “invasive species,” “introduced species,” or “weed.” Ecological scientists might define an invasive species as an introduced (non-native) species that seriously upsets the balance of an existing ecosystem, i.e., that is ecologically destructive on a wide scale. Chakour and I both live in Massachusetts. In our state, we have about 2,200 plant species, of which about 725 are introduced species; of the latter, just “72 … have been scientifically categorized by the Massachusetts Invasive Plant Advisory Group (MIPAG) as ‘Invasive,’ ‘Likely Invasive,’ or ‘Potentially Invasive’,” according to Mass Audubon; only 36 species, or 5% of introduced species, are actually invasive in Massachusetts. Of the ten taxa of plant Chakour discusses in her essay, only one species is invasive here. The other 9 taxa she discusses include both native and introduced species that may or may not be classed as weeds, depending on who you talk to.

Chakour would have done better to discuss what we mean by “weeds.” We could define “weed” quite simply as a plant that a human being does not want growing where it happens to grow. To the homeowner who has been sold on the idea of a perfect green lawn, Dandelions (Taraxacum officianale) are weeds (T. officianale is not considered an invasive species here in Massachusetts). And yes, there are homeowners, golf course groundskeepers, and city parks departments who use toxic chemicals to get rid of weeds like Dandelions. Once you realize Chakour is actually writing about weeds, not invasive species — and if you remember that she’s writing about ecological spirituality, not science — then her essay makes sense.

Considered in that light, Chakour’s essay boils down to two main ideas. First, the word “weed” represents one human’s judgement, and thus may not be an accurate evaluation of a plant’s value to the wider ecosystem. Second, Chakour makes the interesting point that plants can be resources for physical and spiritual healing. Here she’s speaking as an herbalist, with what appears to be a deep knowledge of herbalism. Herbalism may be considered as a kind of ecological spiritual practice that heals both the body and the soul. So Chakour is arguing that if more people could know the health physical and spiritual benefits of some of the plants perceived as “weeds,” humans would be less likely to use toxic chemicals to get rid of those “weeds.”

It’s worth reading “Rethinking Weeds” to learn about one talented herbalist’s ecological spirituality. However, given the errors it contains, this essay should not be cited in any pragmatic discussion of land management or invasive species. This is unfortunate, because I believe ecological spiritualities could provide pragmatic help for addressing some of the big threats to Earth’s life supporting systems — but in order to do so, ecological spiritualities need to pay attention to the work of the ecologists, field biologists, climatologists, and other scientists, along with the land managers and other people who are actually out in the field working hard trying to save our planet before it’s too late.

Ecospirituality at Harvard

The spring/summer issue of the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin features essays on ecological spiritualities. Dan MacKanan, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Senior Lecturer in Divinity, provides the introduction, “Making a Space of ‘Alternative Spiritualites’,” saying in part:

“When the Divinity School committed to offering a fully multireligious master of divinity curriculum about 20 years ago, we expected to see an increasing number of Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu students. That has certainly been the case. But we have also been blessed by a steadily growing number of pagans, animists, readers of the Urantia Book or a Course in Miracles, practitioners of entheogenic or queer or African diasporic spiritualities, seekers, and people who affiliate with two, three, or more traditions. This diversity … invites us to reimagine both religion and the practice of ministry.”

In other words, religion in American has expanded beyond Christianity, and beyond those “world religions.” I’m putting “world religions” in scare quotes because these were the religious traditions that were judged to be the equal of Christianity, the religious tradition which until recently was assumed by many Western scholars to be the paradigm of all religion.

So McKanan and some others at Harvard Divinity School formed the Program for the Evolution of Spirituality to explore how religion was changing (or maybe to find out how our perception of religion has expanded beyond considering Christianity as the paradigm of all religion). I think I’d want to gently critique the name of this program for using the word “evolution” in the title. That’s not a value-free word, and comes freighted with all kinds of assumptions that may not be intended by the people who formed the program. In spite of that, the Program for the Evolution of Spirituality appears to be A Good Thing; I’ll be following their future work with interest.

Their first conference, held in 2022, was on ecological spiritualities. And the bulk of the spring/summer issue of the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin is devoted to essays that apparently grew out of that conference. I’ll have more to say about some of those essays in later posts….

Ecological spirituality workshop, day four

Summary session plan below.

My iNaturalist observations for today.

Suburban/urban nature walk

We took a walk from Ferry Beach Park Association to Camp Ellis. We walked along Surf Street until the pavement ended, then walked along the dirt track where Surf Street used to be. We turned inland at Lower Beach Road, where the dirt track ended, turned down Cove Ave and walked down to look at the Saco River, then down North Ave. to Bay Ave. to the jetty. On the walk back, we went along Route 9.

I’ve never written up full instructions on how to lead a suburban or urban nature walk, and unfortunately I’m not going to have time to write that description now. Suffice it to say the following: in a suburban or urban environment, there will be fewer native species and less biodiversity than in a landscape that is less dominated by humans. So a suburban / urban nature walk will look at what non-human species are present (and why they’re there), and in addition will look at the economic forces that shape the landscape.

Remember — the word “ecojustice” means both “economic justice” and “ecological justice.” Some of the thinking behind ecojustice is that economics cannot be separated from environmental concerns.

For reference: Ecojustice curriculum (gr. 6-8) on my curriculum website.