How green are we willing to go?

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August 12, 2011
Susie Guenther Loewen |

In her 1975 book, New Woman/New Earth, theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether wrote, “The ecological factor will be built into consumer products in some trivial way and then sold with much advertising […] as a luxury item tacked onto present consumer products to placate the conscience.” I can’t help but think that this prediction has come true. These days, we’re sick of hearing about “being green” because it’s become ultra-trendy, and yet, as Ruether predicted thirty-six years ago, that trendiness has watered it down quite a bit. Products are made only slightly less harmful for the environment (if they’re altered at all), and suddenly claims of “greenness” and “eco-friendliness” are all over the label. It’s funny how that works.
Something similar has happened in many of our lifestyles, I think. I keep reading what seems like the same list of “tips for green living” over and over again in different magazines, newspapers, on blogs, etc. It lists a whole bunch of really minor changes that we can make to our lifestyles: to drive a bit less, to recycle, to change our light bulbs to compact fluorescents, to use cloth instead of plastic bags for groceries. The longer list adds buying organic food, and maybe composting. If they’re really extreme, they’ll talk about buying a low flush or low flow toilet (which uses up to 6 liters instead of 13.2 liters per flush), and maybe a hybrid vehicle. They usually mention how easy it is to be green.
Well, these changes are important ones, but the way they’re being proposed has some issues. For one thing, they’re being presented as new ideas, but they’re not. Leafing through the first edition of Doris Janzen Longacre’s Living More With Less (Herald Press, 1980), we find advice on recycling, composting, reusing and repurposing, and all kinds of other ideas that are often more radical than that what we’re used to hearing about today. Instead of talking about low flow toilets, they mention waterless composting toilets (p. 137-8). Instead of talking about switching light bulbs, they talk about solar energy and living in a smaller home altogether, since the shared walls of duplexes, townhouses and apartments save a lot of energy, especially during Canadian winters (p. 121, 131). Instead of promoting hybrid vehicles, they talk about car-sharing, moving closer to work or school, bicycling, walking, using public transportation, or even a horse and buggy (p. 176-80)! Is it possible that we’ve actually gone backwards when it comes to environmental friendliness, since we aren’t even at the level of a book written before I was born? The current trends to become green seem to involve a lot of self-congratulation, but can we stop patting ourselves on the back long enough to realize that these changes, while a start, are just not radical enough?
Even the changes that have occurred lately, like the move toward organic foods, the development of hybrid vehicles, and the “green bin” composting programs in some Canadian cities aren’t as forward-thinking as they seem. Some of these options are only available to the wealthy, who are a minority of the population. As much as some people may judge those who don’t buy organic, a lot of people just can’t afford it. Also, hybrid vehicles, many of which are huge SUVs, still use gas, even though fully electric cars have been around for a long time. The first one was invented in the 1800’s, so why on earth aren’t these things on the road already? Toronto’s green bin program, while it seems positive, involves driving compost long distances in trucks, which is definitely not a great idea for the environment (I’m also not sure it compensates for the unfathomable amounts of fertile farmland buried under the sprawling concrete of the Greater Toronto Area).
But making the extreme changes suggested in the 1980 Living More With Less takes way more work and effort than the quick-and-easy, watered-down version. This means that one of the key questions is: why? What’s our motivation do make all of these major changes? Is it to preserve this earth for the next generations – for our children and grandchildren? Yes, of course, and this is the argument Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki makes, and why his green living advice goes beyond the bare minimum. But for those of us in the church, this incentive exists within another one, which is care for God’s creation. We hear this term a lot, and I would guess most people associate it with the creation stories, especially Genesis 1:28 and the call to fill the earth and “have dominion over it,” which means a responsibility to care for it and live at peace with it rather than to abuse it for our financial gain. But this isn’t where this stream of theology ends; it resurfaces again in Genesis 9, when God makes a covenant with Noah, his family, and all the animals with them. It comes up in the Jubilee tradition, the laws about redistributing land, forgiving debts, freeing slaves, and giving rest to the land in Leviticus 25. When Jesus begins his ministry in Luke 4:18-19, he reads a Scripture passage about “the year of the Lord’s favour,” a term for the Jubilee, which he says is being fulfilled by him. Even the biblical visions of the future, especially in Isaiah, speak about God’s peace extending to all of humanity, the animals, and the whole earth. You know the passage about the lion and the lamb lying down together? That’s in Isaiah 11 (and 65, too). This isn’t a marginal issue in the Bible then; it comes up multiple times, and is tied to other aspects of social justice and peace.
We keep hearing about more frequent natural disasters around the world, such as the current famine in Eastern Africa, which is mainly affecting the poorest of the poor (a trend that will continue as climates change). I think it’s time to stop doing the least we can get away with when it comes to “going green” and caring for God’s creation. Do you think we’re up to it?

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