Reconciling the liberations of both a person and a river

So, the ultimate question (for me at least), in an eco-tethered liberation is this: how might we ensure that a single subject’s liberation – and not just between human subjects, but among human subjects and other-than-human subjects (a river, birds for example) – does not impinge on the liberation of an other-than-human subject? More simply put, how do we reconcile the liberations of both a person and a river?

To figure this out, it helps to understand the different dimensions of liberation. Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez* describes 3. The first 2 we have already discussed: the first dimension of liberation is bringing down oppressive unjust structures within society that exploit subjects; the second dimension is where subjects participate in their own flourishing – or as we have discussed in the cosmological sense, subjects are free to follow their evolutionary impulses. (Note: Gutiérrez never applied liberation to any subjects other than humans; in keeping with many theorists, from Leonardo Boff to Stephen Scharper, I am applying this to other-than-human Earth community).

The trick with these first 2 dimensions above is to ensure that one subject’s liberation does not impinge on the liberation of another. For this, Gutiérrez proposes a third and important dimension of liberation at a communal level: this is a relational dimension of liberation that suggests that my liberation is tied up with yours and the rest of the community. In other words, both social and inner freedom (evolutionary impulses), from oppressive structures are dependent upon the larger communal relationship one experiences with all subjects in creation. 

Let’s look at an example to see how this works. My favorite comes from Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry’s book, The Universe Story.** They have us imagine the evolution of two animals, the bison and the horse, as they express self-organizing tendencies, interacting within a prairie ecosystem. There is a communal relationship among two species and the larger community going on here. Berry uses the concept of reciprocity to explain this relationship:

The bison butted heads for self-protection whereas the horse, which shared the same environment, chose to gallop. Why? It was their self-articulations or evolutionary choices that made them that way. But at the same time, these animals were made within the context of their broader community of beings, or bioregion. In a biological sense, these animals did not enter into a fixed rigid external environment.

Thank you Russ R

Berry and Swimme conclude that the animals worked out their existence in relationship with their larger environment. In another sense, the community said to the horse, “you may be a galloping energy” and to the bison, “you may be a ramming energy, but only if you include all of us and all of our concerns and realities in your life project.”

I love this story because it sums up so well what liberation among a whole community implies: reciprocity. And in the process there is some negotiation going on, as you see above.

Let’s return to the case in point: the liberations of both a human and a river. The human, in working out her liberation, has a right to water (for thirst, cleaning, energy for example). But the river, in realizing its liberation, has rights too: to flow and remain clean, moreover, its waters must circulate throughout the planet so that they can also benefit other lifeforms on the planet. However (and this is me talking, not Berry), the rights of the river AND the human are both determined (limited if you prefer) in relation to the larger biotic community (communion). No right is absolute.  

Some of you might have problems with this, but hear me out: first, not all rights are equivalent. As Berry contends, each subject has rights according to its being: a river has river rights, and a human has human rights. Both subjects have to negotiate their rights within a larger biotic community where all rights are taken into account. In this way, a human can work on articulating her liberation, but she must include all of the biotic community and all of its concerns and realities in her life project.

What I am calling an eco-tethered liberation is precisely this articulation of multiple liberations within the larger concerns and reality of the biotic community. Liberation can only be shared within the larger biotic community. Here, the welfare of one subject or groups is entwined with the welfare of other subjects within the same community. Liberation becomes an ongoing process of listening and negotiating ultimately among the whole of creation.

Just so no one is thinking each subject has to listen and negotiate with an entire planet, it is important to underline that this negotiation should occur bioregionally (an identifiable geographical area of interacting life systems). Berry stressed this, as do Mark Hathaway and Leonardo Boff in their book, The Tao of Liberation.*** Hathaway and Boff state that humans must learn to “fit ourselves into the ecosystem and natural economy of the particular place, rather than trying to mold the place to suit our personal taste (albeit, presumably, some mutuality of shaping does occur).” This negotiation of liberation, of place and space, is best done at the bioregional level.

In the next blog, it’s time to look at all we have discussed in light of the climate crisis facing our planet.


* Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Caridad Inda and ed. John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988).

** Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1992).

***The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009)

Author: Simon Appolloni

I am a writer, teacher, publisher and lover of the universe

2 thoughts on “Reconciling the liberations of both a person and a river”

  1. Thank for this blog. I am very interested in all that is being discussed here.
    I’ll be coming back to it again. I just spotted the link and came in at the middle of Part 11.
    Best wishes,
    Linda Carroll.


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