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A Circuitous Path to Environmentalism

When I was a kid I distinctly remember feeling, at times, somewhat resentful of my “Mennonite-ness.” It wasn’t anything distinctly theological (although like many kids, I suppose, there were moments when I didn’t like being “the Christian” amongst a group of friends who mostly were not) or cultural (I don’t recall particularly liking borscht at the time, but ours was not a family that clung to any of the typical cultural identifiers of German “Mennonite-ness” too fiercely). I knew enough Christians to mitigate the unpleasantness produced by my status as a “cognitive minority,” and there were enough sweet German pastries to offset those Mennonite dishes that happened to offend my palate. No, the source of my resentment lay elsewhere.

To be blunt (and it’s somewhat embarrassing to admit this), I resisted how frugal we were taught to be. This came both from my own parents and, more directly (at least in my admittedly spotty memory), from my grandparents. I remember being told all the time to not throw item x out because it could be reused, to turn out the lights when we left a room (I can’t help but think of these silly BC Hydro commercials where people are applauded for turning out the lights, unplugging their cellphone chargers, and so on – we have our own ways of separating the sheep from the goats these days, don’t we?), to eat what we took (or take less!), to avoid littering, to turn off the water while brushing our teeth, to take shorter showers, to put on a sweater instead of turning up the heat (had to stick that in dad!), to be content with used hockey equipment, and the list goes on. Waste and profligate consumption were, quite simply, anathema to my grandparents.

I can’t help but notice the similarities between the way that my grandparents approached life and the way that we are currently being “encouraged” to live to avert environmental catastrophe. In both cases, a lifestyle of responsible consumption and fiscal restraint are offered as important components of living well in the world. The difference is, I think, in the motivation behind the two ways of approaching the world.

I’m not going to romanticize or over-theologize about my grandparents reasons for advocating a lifestyle of responsible consumption. They had nine kids and money was tight. To whatever extent the “three R’s” (reduce, reuse, recycle) represented their approach to consumption, a good deal of the reasoning behind this was simple economic necessity. However, I think they told us not to waste and to use resources wisely for deeper reasons as well. The earth was the Lord’s, and all within it. We were accountable to God for how we treated the planet he had made. Being wasteful and irresponsible in our consumption of resources was not just imprudent, it was immoral.

My grandparents may not have had all of the sophisticated scientific justification for living modestly that we now possess (or think we possess), but I think that their reasons for challenging their wasteful and careless grandchildren went beyond economics. Simply put, the God we served expected better from us. They knew what it was like to go without and that many on our planet struggled to meet basic needs. To live wastefully was to adopt a posture of indifference to the plight of others and to turn our backs on an important part of our heritage by refusing to learn from it.

I’ve been reading Bjorn Lomborg’s Cool It over the last little while and I’ve appreciated the way in which he probes our current cultural obsession with such things as reducing our “carbon footprint.” Lomborg is as convinced as the next person that human consumption and lifestyle patterns are having a negative effect on the environment (although he differs with some of the apocalyptic predictions of some popular commentators); he’s just not convinced that such initiatives as the Kyoto protocol are the best way to attack the problem.

More importantly (and necessarily, in my opinion), he’s a bit skeptical of the rhetoric being used to promote responsible action. I was drawn to Lomborg’s citing of the following passage from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth:

The climate crisis also offers us the chance to experience what very few generations in history have had the privilege of knowing: a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence; the opportunity to rise…. When we rise, we will experience an epiphany that this crisis is not really about politics at all. It is a moral and spiritual challenge.

I wonder what my grandparents (or other Christians down through the ages) would say about Gore’s implicit view of those eras which preceded our current cultural moment. No “generational mission?” No “compelling moral purpose?” No “shared and unifying cause?” I have no illusions that my grandparents saw their approach to consumption as an “epiphany” or as a response to a grave “moral and spiritual challenge” in and of itself. But I’m quite convinced that they saw it as a (small) part of what it meant to be a responsible bearer of God’s image – as a (small) part of what it meant to respond in gratitude to the God who had made them and the world in which they lived. Sounds almost like a “compelling moral purpose” to me…

So now, twenty-odd years later, I look back at how I was raised with a sense of irony and appreciation. It is deeply ironic that a culture that has spent decades consuming itself to death has now “realized” that our future may depend on living with less and using what we have more responsibly. I think my grandparents (and many before them) knew that a long time ago. My appreciation comes from the fact that we were taught to live this way (although we didn’t always learn very well!) not as a response to catastrophic predictions from a sometimes hysterical mass media or because of a felt need for “spiritual transcendence” or a “unifying generational mission” but because we simply had obligations: to God, to our fellow human beings, and to the planet.

As in many other areas, I find myself in the position of expressing appreciation to those responsible for helping a stubborn, ungrateful, wasteful and acquisitive youngster to find his way in the world. I’m grateful that, to whatever degree they were able, my parents and grandparents modeled a way of being in the world that was, in some ways, ahead of its time. Whether this was the result of economic necessity, theology, or, more likely, a combination of the two, I’m thankful that it has, at least partially, trickled down to me. As a result, I will enthusiastically do my part to “save the planet” but for reasons that have less to do with the edicts delivered from on high by the current prophets of climate change than with a cultural and theological heritage that I am only beginning to properly appreciate.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jayson #

    Well said Ryan! (this is Gina, by the way) I appreciate your thoughts and resonate very much with what you say. In the past few years, I have find myself getting very irritated with overconsumption and irresponsible use of what “we” have been given.
    Also, in the past 6 years, I have come to appreciate my “Mennonite-ness” as our church is part of Mennonite Church Canada. The conference’s position on peace, and the global church are a few things I appreciate very much. Caring for the earth and it’s resources also come out strongly in the resources we, as a church, use. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts…

    May 5, 2008
  2. Thanks Gina, good to hear from you! I think that MB’s have a lot to learn from other Mennonites and environmental ethics is certainly an area where I think this is the case.

    (The other issues you cite would also fall into the category of “emphases worth recovering,” from my perspective, but that’s probably another blog post or seven!)

    May 5, 2008

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