This past Sunday I was one of a handful of speakers at our local fellowship's Totally Green Service (always the Sunday closest to Earth Day). While other speakers from older generations spoke about what they've done to help the environment in the past up to the present, my task was to talk more about the present and what I hope the next 40 years of Earth Days will bring. My time limit? Five minutes! It is very challenging to say anything worthwhile in five minutes, but this is what I produced (which, admittedly, is closer to six minutes in length). As always, names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty).
What it means to be an environmentalist has changed a lot in the past 35 years that I've been on this planet. When I was in elementary school Earth Day was never mentioned and my only awareness of what it meant to be an “environmentalist” was that you weren't supposed to litter and that you were happy that the air was cleaner because cars now used unleaded gasoline. The monthly trip to the Golden Goat aluminum can crusher was more about getting change in your pocket than how recycling could help the planet.
By the time I was in high school it was cool to be concerned about the threatened existence of cute little tree frogs and read the writings of Al Gore. Being an environmentalist in the 1990s meant, at least in mainstream circles, that you were protecting the Earth for the Earth’s sake. That you should protect that tree frog because of the unique and irreplaceable role that species plays in the interconnected web of life.
While being eco-friendly in the 1990’s was the right thing to do, and celebrating Earth Day was hip, being a “real” environmentalist required the type of forethought, planning and work to which few of us were willing to fully commit. After all, they’re just tree frogs.
After the millennium there was more talk about preserving biodiversity, but now new options and information were available to help the self-proclaimed environmentalist make responsible choices. Did you remember to bring your canvas bags to the grocery store? Have you tried the new organic potato chips? Have you heard about the new hybrid cars that are coming? Did you make your Earth Day resolutions?
Suddenly, two barriers to making environmentally-sound decisions - information and convenience - became less of an issue. I could save the planet just by eating the right yogurt or using a specific brand of toothpaste!
But with personal choices come personal responsibilities. Once you start making serious and sincere decisions based on environmental consideration, it’s challenging to draw an arbitrary line in the sand and stop. You find yourself making increasingly hard, and inconvenient choices. Choices such as using cloth diapers or cloth menstrual pads instead of the disposable alternatives - even if some people will never understand why. Or choosing food limits which make potlucks a minefield and leaves you explaining to your family for the umpteenth time why you prefer to make your own baby food. It means accepting the fact that new coworkers will wonder if the reason you walk to work is because you’re too poor to afford a car or have some disability which prevents you from driving one.
And even with today’s general acceptance of living a “green lifestyle,” being an environmentalist can still make you an outcast. That story about walking to work? That's a true story - my story - and you can bet I haven’t had the cloth diapers and pads conversation with that coworker yet. But the truth is is that sometimes being an environmentalist and making these decisions can make you feel like an outsider, and that can get you thinking about people and why you’re doing all of this in the first place.
Once you start making choices every day about how you’re going to use our planet’s limited resources, you realize that the reason you’re making these decisions isn't so much about a sense of responsibility and obligation to the tree frogs, but out of a sense of responsibility and obligation to other people. Because these resources aren't, or at least, shouldn't be, just mine or ours. They belong to everyone. They are to be used carefully, wisely, and judiciously.
And they should be used to meet the needs of many, not just the wants of a few.
So, each year when Earth Day comes around and I make choices, I make choices because the environment and humanity are tied together in a way that is complex, beautiful, and scary. When I choose to eat less meat (and encourage others to do so), it is in hope that agricultural resources used to grow food for livestock might instead be used to grow food for people who desperately need it. And when I choose to buy a specific brand of tomato sauce, I buy it because that company has a track record of paying it’s workers fair wages. And when I do things like hang my laundry out to dry, or choose to live on WWII rations for a year, it’s so that my resources - my time and money - can be spent on helping others who need it.
Our family has used some of the money we've saved this year from rationing to sponsor a child, a little girl named Amanthi, from Sri Lanka. She is the same age as Sissy (our oldest daughter) and lives in a remote and primarily agricultural area. Why this may seem like more of a social justice (rather than environmental) choice the lines are, in fact, blurred.
If Amanthi does not have clean water because of agricultural run-off she will get sick. If her family plants crops that are not suited to their region she will go hungry. If her village experiences mudslides during the monsoon season because of loose topsoil resulting from deforestation, she suffers. And if she suffers, or is ill, or hungry, she cannot go to school. She cannot learn. And she cannot improve her life and that of her family.
Amanthi’s life is tied so directly to her environment it is a blatant and undeniable relationship. Our lives, in reality, are like that, too. But our dependence is camouflaged by bright shiny toys and plastic packaging. But in the end, we’re all in the same boat…or at least, on the same planet.
And so I hope that the next 40 years will bring about a greater understanding of how environmental issues and those of social justice are inextricably interwoven in such a tight way that if we can improve one then the other will rise as well.
If we respect the environment, then we respect humanity…and vice versa. After all, being an environmentalist in this post-modern world is really just about being a good human.
As Tree Hugger blogger Chris Tackett has said, “Environmentalist has become a useless term because no one seems to know or agree on what it even means. If it means having clean air, water and food, we’re all environmentalists.”
And all of us deserve clean air, water and food.