Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Packing Light
distributed 5/25/12 - ©2012

Early last Friday morning, my wife and I began a three day backpacking trip at the Grand Canyon.

For months, we had been planning, preparing and getting in shape for this challenging and immensely rewarding trip. Following a trail below the rim of the Canyon provides an intimate experience this Wonder of the World that simply cannot be matched from the viewpoints at the top.

Over an extended weekend, we dropped -- layer by distinctive layer -- through 1 billion, 700 million years of Earth's geological history . Each successive bed of limestone, sandstone, shale, and finally granite speaks of our planet's eons of physical and evolutionary change. At the very bottom, some of the oldest rocks visible anywhere on Earth have been carved into a steep gorge. Sand and boulders carried by the Colorado River have cut through hundreds of feet of the hard Vishnu schist, and the black cliffs by the river are polished and rounded by the continuing work of the river. It is truly awesome to experience the scope and power of these natural processes.

Then, we worked back up through the layers. (A recurring Park Service sign along the trail reminds hikers, "Down is optional. Up is mandatory.") Climbing up the 4,380 feet from the river to the rim -- and aware of every single foot of that rise! -- we moved through successive biological zones: hot and dry desert, lush streambeds, scattered woodlands of pinyon pine and juniper, and finally the tall and cool forests at the top. We saw an delightful variety of wildlife, including several of the California Condors which are rebounding from near extinction, and a cute rattlesnake right next to the trail.

We followed the Bright Angel Trail on our hike. It is the Canyon's best-maintained and most heavily used trail, with frequent water supplies -- and still a very demanding journey.

As Allyson and I planned for our trip, we devoted an enormous amount of attention to the equipment we would carry on the trail. Lists were made, revised, and tweaked again to make sure that we had everything we needed, and nothing that was unnecessary.

We definitely needed good boots and hiking poles, several water bottles, lots of food, and basic first aid gear. Hats and sunscreen were essential to protect us from the hot sun. Warm nighttime temperatures deep in the Canyon meant that we could use ultra-lightweight sleeping bags, and the cloudless weather allowed us to go without a tent -- saving several pounds, and allowing us to rejoice in the absolutely stunning stars.

We cut every luxury from our packing lists. In the choice between two jackets, we selected the one weighing 3 ounces less. Extra clothes were gladly left behind. Our food was carefully balanced between each item's weight and the energy it would provide.

Three days of demanding hiking in the desert certainly brings a wonderful clarity to what is really necessary. Packing light is a very attractive goal. Trimming our gear down to the absolute minimum allowed us to enjoy every bit of the hike, and to avoid the exhaustion and pain that we saw in so many other hikers.

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Before and after our hike, we saw a dramatic contrast to our minimalist packing.

On the roads going to and from the Canyon, and in the Park Service campground on the South Rim, we saw monster motor homes equipped for abundant life on the road. With on-board generators, air conditioning, satellite TV, beds, showers and full kitchens, they provide all the comforts of home.

Allyson and I asked again and again, "how little do I need?" The mobile home drivers ask, "how much can I have?" We struggled to prune every possible ounce; they seem to take delight in adding every possible comfort. (But see the disclaimer below!) Doing without a folding chair, or even another change of clothes, does not feel like a deprivation to a backpacker. It is a choice we gladly made to enhance our overall comfort.

The difference in our choices has to do with how personally we pay the costs of moving that extra stuff. Our shoulders, knees and calves were intimately acquainted with every pound that we carried. Adding more to a motor home's cargo means a little more money for gas, a little slower climb on a steep road, and some invisible costs for the global environment. We felt the costs up-close and personal; their costs are relatively abstract.

Disclaimer: I use the mobile homes we saw at Grand Canyon as an example of an excessive lifestyle, which is often the case. However, I know of some families -- including at least one on the Notes mailing list -- who have "downsized" from permanent homes into a nomadic life in much smaller mobile homes. Dottie and Alan report that their energy footprint and impact on the planet are much smaller in the mobile home than in their former suburban house. Some of the mobile homes on our highways do belong to people who are "packing light"!

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These contrasting camping images are revealing about the way we all live in the world.

The expectation of US culture is that we'll be like the motor home drivers: wanting as much as we can have, and feeling deprived if we have to forego any sort of comfort or option. That lifestyle seems attractive because its costs are hidden and diffuse. In our globalized economy, the social and environmental costs of our choices can be hard to identify. We certainly don't have an intimate sense of the pain and suffering that our consumption brings to exploited workers, depleted resources, demolished habitats and weakened environments. We don't feel the hard work of carrying our own load.

I think of the people I know who are turning away from "the American dream" toward simpler and more sustainable living. They are often people who have had some vivid personal experience of the costs of the exploitative lifestyle, or who are able to intuitively grasp the effects of their consumption on the whole of creation. When they feel the burden of carrying that lifestyle, they decide that small comforts and luxuries are not worth the great pain -- emotional, environmental and social -- that such choices cause.

We won't transform our society by making people give up what they want. Change will come when people are so intimately aware of the costs of their lifestyle that they freely decide to “go light.” Really feeling the impacts of our consumption can help us realize that simplicity and sustainability are very attractive choices.

That transformative insight can grow out of experiences that bring us into compassionate contact with human and environmental distress. Some options are mission trips, "toxic tours" of impacted communities, and "simplicity circles". By offering these sorts of programs, our churches help people feel what it is like to carry the load of their lifestyle, and can inspire them to pack light for their journey through life.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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