Living the good and sustainable life: how I started my own revolution

Over the past few years I have become more interested in the concept of living sustainably. In a world that is threatened by a shortage of resources, food and water, of degradation of arable land, loss of biodiversity, and the consequences of climate change, sustainable practices seemed to offer an achievable goal for the individual person to contribute positively to the problem. It is unfortunately too easy for people to become overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem, and become anxious, dispirited and disinclined to do anything as a result.

There is just so much to contend with, what with global financial crises, extreme weather, food and water shortages, and escalating oil prices. Scientists, economists, conservationists and activists have all expressed concern at the speed of these changes and the potential consequences. Our current way of living in Western countries is not sustainable, yet we are encouraged to consume more and ‘live the good life’, or ‘the Australian dream’. This ‘good life’ of unfettered consumerism is causing the destruction of the environment, increasing the gap between rich and poor, and leading us down a path where human-induced global warming will ultimately cause the ‘sixth extinction’, a period where a huge loss of different species will occur – and may well include our own.

Recently we watched a documentary called “No Impact Man”, based on a year where writer Colin Beavan and his family tried to live a carbon neutral life (you can see it here at http://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/no_impact_man/). I found it interesting enough to buy the book:  No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process.

Quite a title. For me, it was both compelling and damning reading. Because, I suspect, most of us just tinker around the edges of changing our lifestyles. We recycle, we visit a farmers’ market maybe, we buy fair-trade coffee, tea and chocolate. All of these things are good, but aren’t going to change the way the world works or our individual carbon footprints.

Prior to No Impact Man, we liked to think we live a lifestyle that has less impact than the average Westerner. On examination, our lifestyle was not a patch on Colin Beavan’s year of near carbon neutrality. Not even close. It raised quite starkly the possibility that one can always find a way of living more sustainably. How hard is it to live sustainably in the Western world? Can we reduce our carbon footprint to very low levels? To see what is possible, I decided to experiment on myself (and my husband John is happy to join me) for my research project in the social ecology Masters degree at the University of Western Sydney.

Why bother, I hear you ask? It is clear that something needs to be done. It is too easy to blame governments and renege on our own responsibilities. Whilst a number of us might think it should be the government’s responsibility to do something, there are those who think that each one of us has a personal responsibility.

Secondly, John and I are both ministers in the Uniting Church. Around two years ago, I prepared a number of bible studies that were meant to encourage people of faith to re-examine that faith in the light of environmental concerns. The studies had two central tenets – ‘love your neighbour’ (and this meant all people, even the ones you can’t see overseas and by ‘love’ we mean do them no harm); and secondly, respect and treat well the creation that God saw as integrated and ‘good’.

These studies were run with mixed results. Those who took part agreed in principle to what their scripture was telling them. Yet despite the dire consequences that the biblical book of Deuteronomy promises for disobedience (see Deuteronomy 28:15-68 if you are really interested whether you risk being struck with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, or with blight and mildew, that will plague you until you perish),many saw it as ‘too hard’ or ‘too inconvenient for my lifestyle’ to actually adopt habits that would in effect, not support child labour, sweatshops, over-consumerism, environmental degradation, climate change and unethical food practices. Others attempted to make small but significant changes in their eating and consumer habits.

The Uniting Church in Australia is committed to acting in ways that will build a just and compassionate society. It is dedicated to working for the common good of all humanity. It seeks to transform unjust social structures, and to protect and renew all of creation.  The 1977 Statement to the Nation clearly says that “We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment.”

In other words, this church is a political church. It is not afraid to tackle thorny issues as they arise on the political landscape. It lobbies governments, it has helped to create policy (and occasionally history as with the Safe Injecting Room), it pushes issues of justice in the media and it urges its congregations, councils and members to actually live out the faith of a disciple of Jesus. In recent times, this has included more and more environmental issues.

On 1 November 2006, the Uniting Church Assembly voted to adopt the statement “For the Sake of the Planet and all its People: A Uniting Church in Australia Statement on Climate Change” (retrieved from http://www.unitingjustice.org.au/environment/uca-statements/item/481-for-the-sake-of-the-planet-and-all-its-people)

This document encouraged Uniting Church members, congregations, groups, agencies and councils to:

‘model ways of living and working that minimise the production of greenhouse gas emissions; and advocate for government to implement policies that significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and increase our use of non-nuclear renewable energy sources.’

So the time has come to put our money where our climate strategy mouth is.

For the next 6 months we will be experimenting with sustainable ways of living and blogging about it here.  So stay tuned for the next instalment as we battle with wads of plastic packaging, low food miles, homemade toothpaste and our bicycles.

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