Speak up for the environment

We need a cultural change that makes it OK to intervene when someone is harming the planet

August 11, 2010|By Nina Beth Cardin

Once upon a time, we couldn't ask people not to smoke in our presence. Once upon a time, we couldn't ask people not to drive while drunk.

But slowly and with great effort, cultural expectations, public will and the law changed. Through a groundswell of well-managed and well-financed educational campaigns, our attitudes about what was right and what was wrong evolved. Ultimately, both smoking and drunken driving were seen not as private acts protected by the right of self-determination, but as threats to public health that should be regulated on behalf of public welfare.

So it must be with the environment.

We need a broad-based "public will" campaign that encourages us to say something when we see each other harm the environment. We need to make it socially unacceptable, taboo and publicly embarrassing to manufacture, purchase and consume things whose production, use or disposal harms us all. Not only because it hurts the environment somewhere beyond view, though it does. And not only because it will eventually affect our children somewhere beyond now, which it will. But because, like secondhand smoke and another's drunken driving, such behavior puts us at risk, here and now.

Environmental protection is not about big business versus small animals, or progressive economic development versus troglodyte tree-huggers. It is about personal and collective behavior versus individual, collective and world health. (And, as in smoking and drinking, it is often about me versus my health.)

No matter the issue — whether the behavior of international companies and their factories overseas, federal tax incentives that support bad energy and agricultural policies, lifestyles that are too large, or disposable materials being used by our own families and congregations when durables would do — we must speak out and say something, individually and collectively.

For most of us, it is hard to do.

I was in the check-out line in a neighborhood market the other day, and as the cashier was ringing up my purchases, I told her that I did not need a bag, I had my own. Too late; habit had forced her hand. My purchases were already landing in the plastic bag.

She paused and asked, "So you don't want this bag."

"No," I replied. At which point she dutifully took my foodstuffs out of the bag, placed them on the counter — and proceeded to throw away the plastic bag.

That was not what I intended. The exchange was not about me but about the bag. Not about my aesthetic preferences but about not creating waste in the world.

This nuance was clearly missed. The ability of so many of us (this is not the first time such an exchange and result has happened) to blithely throw away a pristine object untainted by use, dirt, blemishes, holes or damage indicates what a profligate and environmentally insensitive lifestyle we live.

But did I say something? I did not. No doubt because I didn't want to offend. Or have the cashier think ill of me. Or fail in my message. Or any number of other reasons. But at what price did I earn my silence?

My friend Rebecca, who is a gentle, passionate soul, told me she would have said something like: "You know, you can use that bag again." Not in a chiding, judgmental way, but in a here's-an-idea, awakening kind of way.

Once upon a time, we needed to be taught how to ask others not to smoke. Once upon a time, we had to learn how to stop drunken driving. To understand that "Friends don't let friends drive drunk" turned what once seemed like an assault on personal freedom into a laudable expression of caring and kindness.

We must craft similar ways to speak of caring for creation, so that it is understood as one of the most profound ways we can care for each other, so that the message can be heard and heeded. We need to learn how to shift cultural attitudes toward a deeper expectation of satisfaction and "enoughness." We need to make a pact with each other that we will all do this together, have each other's backs, so that we do not flinch from this task or feel ostracized in the process.

There are people working on this, and studying this, even as I write. But we don't have that pithy catch-phrase yet.

If, as you speak to those around you, teaching them about our obligation to live well and justly on this earth, and to care well for each other, you trip upon such a phrase, do share it with the rest of us.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is a board member of the Chesapeake Covenant Community, an interfaith environmental organization working in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and is executive director of the Baltimore Tree Trust. Her e-mail is ninabeth@baltimoretreetrust.org.

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