Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

An Energy-Efficient Pop Machine
distributed 4/29/04 & 9/28/07 - ©2004, 2007

A student's question cut to the core of the matter.

I was talking to a college sociology class about some of the ways that churches are addressing environmental issues. It was a wide-ranging conversation, touching on theology and biblical interpretation, the difference between issue activism and broad social change movements, the sociological role of religious institutions, and the history of religious environmental work in the US.

At one point, I mentioned the dedicated environmental efforts of a congregation that I've been working with. Among other projects, they have been analyzing -- and significantly reducing -- energy use in the church building. I told about how they measured the electrical consumption of individual appliances. When they discovered that a soft drink machine was a real energy hog, they negotiated with the distributor for a more efficient vending machine. I told the story as a good example of practical and effective changes at the local church level.

That's when the student spoke up from the back row. "What are they doing with a pop machine at all?" In our dialogue around that question, the student challenged me with pertinent references to liberation eco-theologian Leonardo Boff, and spoke about the need for churches to call their members to alternative worldviews, not just efficiency.

The truth in that conversation has been nagging at me for over a month now.

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At the same time that I met with the college group, I was reading through a 1979 book, "The Conserver Society." In an analysis that is painfully current after 25 years, a group of Canadian researchers proposed three options to our existing mass-consumption society.

  • Conserver Society 1 is grounded in the "reform of inefficient consumption habits" and calls for adjustments in technology and economic systems to reduce waste and deal with hidden environmental costs. This first approach does nothing to challenge the ethics of growth and accumulation.

  • Conserver Society 2 introduces what they considered a "mild value change, namely, the acceptance of the notion of a ceiling to certain economic activities." This approach challenges the idea of perpetual growth and affirms a "steady state" society.

  • Conserver Society 3 demands radical changes in our values and our daily lives. This most challenging approach calls for a redefinition of the primary goals for our individual and social life. It affirms "being, not buying."
This third option gets at the values and worldview changes that the college student named. The more efficient pop machine sits in the realm of Conserver Society 1.

Which of these approaches should churches be pushing?

Improving a congregation's energy efficiency is something that can be done as a practical, economic project. It saves the church money on utility bills, and the functional changes are generally handled by committees and staff. Any measure of responsible stewardship demands at least this much.

Transforming the values and worldview that undergird a congregation's ministry is a far more daunting project. It will be deeply challenging and threatening to many in our churches and communities. It is a project that, quite frankly, may conflict with the desire of congregations and denominations to grow in numbers and finances.

Which brings us right back around to the core question. Is the goal of our churches to do good things, kind and efficient things, within the general framework of the larger society? Or should our churches be calling us to a much deeper transformation, one that may appear foolish in the eyes of the broader society?

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It is a core premise of Eco-Justice Ministries that Christian churches must address today's environmental crises if they are going to be faithful and relevant. The Earth's intense distress, locally and globally, is a matter of ultimate ethical and spiritual concern. Silence and inactivity from the churches simply are not acceptable responses.

In all of Eco-Justice Ministries' programming, we hold up the challenge and promise of that third level of transformation, of a profoundly faithful conversion into a different way of living in this world. It is at that level that we see both the most authentic forms of Christian faith, and the most promising strategies for ecological healing.

But, as my dialogue with the college student revealed, getting to that sort of transformational faith and ministry is not easy. A few sermons or adult classes won't bring us into a new way of living. Changing a worldview is a long, slow, gradual process.

And so it is important to celebrate and affirm each step that congregations and their members make toward being faithful "conservers." From the first stages of awareness, to the most far-reaching changes in personal and institutional life, there are blessings, healing and joy.

As we celebrate each of those steps, though, let us always hear the call to deeper faithfulness and greater transformation. May our work for energy efficiency be a first step on a far greater journey, and not our goal.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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