Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Gradual Good News
distributed 1/13/12 - ©2012

"Is there any good news? Are we making any progress at all?"

That was the gist of a question posed during a church class last week. The woman who raised it was all too well informed about the enormous environmental challenges and crises we face, and was desperately in need of some encouragement.

As I began to shape a response, I talked about my writing of these Eco-Justice Notes for more than a decade, and how I re-run some of them on appropriate occasions. "As I read back through those old commentaries, though," I said, "I find that there are lots that can't be re-used, because they're not true any more. Some things really have changed for the better."

Discerning the gradual good news means stepping away from the dramatic headlines, and looking for the trends that have developed slowly and quietly. It is helpful and encouraging for all of us, on occasion, to pay attention to the good news.

Here are some of the positive themes that we identified the other evening.

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There have been remarkable changes in what we drive. One of my very first Notes, in early 2001, expressed disgust about a monster "SUV" that was being marketed -- the "Unimog" at 9 feet tall, 12,500 pounds, and about 10 miles to the gallon. Those were the days when Hummers were all the rage, and huge cars were effective status symbols.

In 2002, a religious campaign for better auto fuel economy included the slogan, "What Would Jesus Drive?" as a challenge to our culture's wasteful auto culture. My Notes on that topic looked at the emotional and symbolic meaning we give to our cars -- and reflected on how the oversized cars we drive are not just about transportation.

But then gas prices went way up, and the Hummer became an obscenity. The cost to buy and maintain SUVs became unrealistic for many families. Small cars and hybrids gained market share.

This week, as an example of this gradual and remarkable trend, Cadillac announced a new compact car that will get close to 40 miles per gallon, using a conventional gas engine. It is the sort of fuel economy that the auto industry once said was impossible to achieve. Now 40 mpg is the standard that car buyers are demanding.

The shift away from SUVs and gas-guzzlers is an amazing shift on many levels: technical, economic and cultural.

An even more remarkable trend is seen among many young adults in the US. Getting a car used to be a rite of passage at the age of 16 or 18, a sign of being an independent adult. But recent reports say that many young adults a deciding that they don't want a car. Owning a vehicle doesn't describe their identity and their community. That's good news.

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The church group talked about the remarkable increase in "alternative energy" over the last decade or so. Wind and solar power are still very small parts of the domestic electric supply, but they have gone from being novelties to being mainstream elements of the energy grid.

In May of 2001, my complaints about the Bush energy policy said: "As expected, the emphasis is on increasing energy production -- oil, coal, gas and nuclear. Alternative and renewable energy sources, somehow, are lumped into the 'conservation' heading, and are given little encouragement."

But even through the Bush/Cheney years, solar panels have become common on homes, schools, businesses and government buildings. Large arrays of those panels show up in highly visible locations like Denver International Airport and the Denver Federal Center -- very intentional public placements that affirms the growing use of this technology.

"Wind farms" are a dramatic sight across some of the high plains of the Rocky Mountain region, and the business of manufacturing those turbines is a substantial economic boost here in Colorado.

There is a very long way to go in reducing coal as a primary source of power, but there is good news in the widespread and rapidly growing use of renewable energy.

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Recycling is becoming more common and more extensive. It wasn't that long ago that it was hard work to recycle basic things like magazines and plastics. Dedicated citizens had to be very careful about separating their refuse into tightly defined containers and waste streams. Another Notes from early 2001 talks about the tragedy of school kids "contaminating" a dumpster designated for office paper by putting cardboard into it.

Now, those dumpsters are "single stream" containers, accepting office paper, glossy magazines, cardboard, phone books, cans, bottles and most plastics. In Denver, we have free curbside pickup for household recycling with the same single-stream opportunities.

Recycling has become amazingly easy and common. That's good news.

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Through the last decade or so, we've seen some really remarkable changes. Goals for environmental responsibility that seemed almost impossible to imagine have been achieved, and now seen utterly ordinary.

In transportation, electricity generation and recycling, through countless small steps, we've ended up in a very different place. The changes don't reflect heroic and exceptional individual choices. Long and dedicated work on public policy and community education have made them part of our cultural norms, and have achieved these changes through rational economic factors. We really have made progress on some very important things. There is good news!

That doesn't take away the bad news, of course, or the need to move much farther with the positive developments. But we can be encouraged in our ongoing work of caring for creation by stepping back on occasion to see the gradual good news.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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