I remember my confusion when I started an internship at an environmental policy office. It wasn’t paperless; not even close. The office lights were wired as a package deal, meaning they all stayed on until the end of the day. Take-out lunches came in crisp white Styrofoam containers, and mine were the only meatless meals around the table. Most of the staff walked, biked or carpooled to work, but that likely had more to do with finances.
They worked, after all, at an environmental policy office.
This seemed very inconsistent. How could we challenge politicians on their environmental record when our office didn’t even have a compost bin? How could we call for energy reform when we had already booked the plane tickets to bring out-of-town board members to the annual general meeting? It didn’t take me long to realize that in the environmental world — pardon the pun — nothing is clear cut.
The scope of the problem
From the command given at Mount Sinai to rest the land every seventh year to Revelation’s account of judgement for “those who destroy the earth,” God calls us to care for our natural surroundings. This is important for the sake of protecting creation itself, but also as it relates to the most vulnerable around the world.
The UN Refugee Agency estimates that in less than 40 years, 200 million refugees will be forced from their homes due to environmental degradation. In the Maldives, a nation of low-lying islands, the government is investing partial tourism profits into a fund to eventually relocate their entire population to land in South Asia. In Bangladesh, where the per capita carbon footprint is only 0.3 metric tonnes (compared to 18 metric tonnes per capita in Canada), unprecedented storms and floods are ravaging people’s lives, homes, and once-fertile land.
The World Health Organization warns that by the year 2030, about 300,000 people will die annually from the impacts of climate change. Disproportionately, the people that will die will have caused the least environmental damage on a world scale.
The broader Issue
A small fraction of people today have a perfectly green scorecard — most people still fly, heat their homes, use plastic products, and eat food that was either sprayed with petrol-laced pesticides or driven to the organic farmers’ market. To maintain a zero footprint across the board, you’d have to be near obsessive with all your decisions.
Karri Munn-Venn, an environmental policy analyst at Citizens for Public Justice and co-editor of Living Ecological Justice: A Biblical Response to the Environmental Crisis, doesn’t believe that living within the current system should stop people from speaking against the status quo.
“I think it’s really important that we look at the broader systemic issues: the way our economy is structured, the way our infrastructure is built and the way industry is subsidized.”
As an example, she points to the difference between installing solar panels and connecting to the pre-existing power grid. While a homeowner may find some rebates to offset the cost of purchasing the equipment and installing the solar infrastructure, it’s still much easier for homeowners to simply access the existing system, using traditional energy sources.
Can we be too green?
While the growing “green” emphasis in society is an encouraging shift, there is a downside. A myopic focus on green lifestyle changes — even in a genuine attempt to avoid hypocrisy — can actually confuse the environmental facts. In This Crazy Time, environmental activist Tzeporah Berman recounts some polling conducted by PowerUp Canada that confirmed the need for more robust public education on climate change.
“When we asked Canadians to identify the cause of global warming,” she writes, “they were less likely to blame the tar sands than they were to say, ‘I use too many plastic bags.’”
Confusion is not the only downside of the movement towards everyday greening. “Ironically, it can lead to a bit of complacency,” says Munn-Venn. “When people are active in composting and change all their light bulbs and ride bikes to work, they can kind of pat themselves on the back and go, ‘OK, I’ve done my bit.’”
In reality, the impact of these actions are infinitesimally small. In Living Ecological Justice, Munn-Venn and co-editor Mishka Lysack explain the disconnect between personal greening measures and the enormity of environmental issues.
“The key is scale,” they explain. “The problems lie with how we have organized our economy and designed our buildings and cities, hardwiring our problems into structures that are difficult to change.”
The question then becomes: should we invest our time and money primarily into individual, household, or church greening initiatives? Or should we invest our limited resources into political engagement and the movements working for regulatory change that could potentially make far more significant and measurable progress?
This, I came to realize, was why my environmental policy office didn’t sweat the small stuff.
The power of everyday actions
While we need to be pragmatic, we are also called to act with integrity. In the same way that we can’t switch to cloth grocery bags and think we’re saving the world, we can’t write a letter or sign a petition and think it gives us carte blanche to live wastefully.
Understanding our lifestyles’ impact on the natural environment and on the world’s most vulnerable people, we need to work for change that’s both top down and bottom up. Our everyday actions, though limited by the constraints of our current system, can become a prophetic witness of new ways we’re willing to live.
Even the little things, as Munn-Venn and Lysack explain, will reduce the actual amount of carbon emissions and other pollution, slightly slowing environmental degradation and allowing more time to make the necessary deeper changes.
Personal green choices also send the message to industry that customers expect sustainably produced goods, and supporting businesses already operating this way helps build the sustainable economy.
Finally — and most importantly according to Munn-Venn and Lysack — our everyday choices impact the way we see our relationship with creation.
“Personal greening often helps people prepare psychologically,” says Munn-Venn. “The earth needs a massive transformation in the way our systems and economy are structured, and if we begin to make smaller changes that alter the way we think about energy use, that can help us prepare for the larger changes that need to be put in place.”
By the time my internship ended, I could see past the once shocking absence of a compost bin. Instead I came to value the ability to order fresh, free-range eggs from a co-worker’s friend’s farm, and the certified organic coffee grounds purchased for the coffee machine. I also saw how they were multiplying their impact by inspiring Christians across the country to engage with their elected representatives on issues of environmental justice. And I realized that when my co-workers walked, biked, or carpooled to the office, it wasn’t just a financial decision.
They worked, after all, at an environmental policy office.
Originally published in Issue 20 of Converge Magazine.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Howl Arts Collective.