I was on retreat this past Saturday, at Sacred Heart Church, listening to Tom Roberts, Editor-At-Large of the National Catholic Reporter. He talked about the lessons he’s learned over his career as a reporter, often speaking with people with whom he deeply disagrees. The theme of our retreat was “Blue Pews, Red Pews.” As the country has grown more divisive, even within our church communities, we wanted to be challenged to think beyond the division, or better, deeper than the division. It was a very helpful talk, remembering that every person, no matter how disagreeable, has a story, a family, a history with her or his God. I’m still mulling over what he had to say, but then I came upon an article in this week’s New York Times Magazine that clearly illustrated the deep divisions that we face today.
You can read it here. It is about the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, along the Canadian border. Over millennia this land has become both a marvel of nature’s beauty, and magnet for tourists, but also the repository of billions of dollars of minerals like nickel and iron that make our contemporary lifestyle possible. These two realities are in conflict as we speak about the future of this land, its flora and fauna, especially the human beings who live and work there.
The two people featured in the piece, Dan Forsman and Becky Rom, represent the two sides of this conflict. Dan is a mechanic who works on the big machines at the local mining sites. Becky is an environmental activist who is working to stop mining in the area. Both are very deep roots in the community, going back almost 120 years. Since the area was first settled in the 1860s, their families were among the originals! However, the focus of their attention could not be more diametrically opposed. Dan wants the jobs, good paying, year round, jobs that mining proposals can bring to the area. Becky, a retired real estate agent who moved back to Ely, MN (the epicenter of this conflict), wants to safeguard the natural environment in support of eco-tourism and other outdoor adventure businesses.
Dan does not want to destroy the environment, but he thinks the environment can be protected AND good paying jobs created. Becky thinks that there is no way to have a safe mine, and so wants to move away from mining and toward an economy based on outdoor adventures. Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes; many of its people don’t want to see the environment threatened, but they also recognize the need for good paying, year round, jobs for their people. What to do?
I don’t have a “silver bullet” or a “magic pill” that can solve these kinds of dilemmas. I do know that these kinds of conflicts call for what philosophers call “epistemic humility.” People who are not philosopher likely call this the wisdom to know that they don’t know everything. One of the things Dan notes about Becky is that she speaks with such condescension about those who want those mining jobs. It reminded me of the need to step down from my ‘high horse” of certainty about my position. It reminded me that every person has a story to tell, a God to whom they relate, a family they love and cherish. Each of us is a child of God, an inhabitant of this beautiful blue-white-green marble in expanse of space. We each need the air to breathe, clean water to drink, nourishing food, and a warm bed for rest. We are all part of this same interconnected set of relations that we call Earth.
I pray that Dan and Becky get a chance to share their stories with each other. I pray that each of us, with the people in our lives and in our politics, with whom we disagree, can listen a bit more, break bread more frequently with each other, realize more deeply than ever that we are members of the community of life. This web of relationships, this community of living things, is bigger than any one of us, and perhaps, by tapping into that reality, recognizing the limits of our own knowledge, we may, just may, find a way to muddle through.
At the Center for Environmental Transformation we invite people, of all ages, into conversation, across differences, to find common ground and work toward ways of living on earth that are less destructive, but also life giving. Join us as partners in this “great work!”
Mark Doorley, Ph.D.
Board of Trustees
The Center for Environmental Transformation