What is a Carbon Footprint?
According to the United Kingdom’s Carbon Trust, a company created by the British government “to accelerate the move to a low carbon economy by working with organizations to reduce carbon emissions and develop commercial low carbon technologies”, a carbon footprint is "the total set of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions caused directly and indirectly by an individual, organization, event or product" (2008). Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are often called greenhouse gases. According to the Environmental Protection Agency: “Some greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide occur naturally and are emitted to the atmosphere through natural processes and human activities. Other greenhouse gases are created and emitted solely through human activities.” We, you and I and all humans, directly produce greenhouse gases through such activities as driving cars and burning wood in our fireplaces, and we indirectly produce greenhouse gases through such activities as buying products for our comfort or for our diet that have to be transported from all over the world and through buying highly processed products that require industry to produce carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, or fluorinated gases.
These definitions and examples are not as simple as they might seem on the surface. We live in a global economic community. When we buy something local or even in the United States, parts of the product could have been made in some other country. And if we buy something from another country, some parts of it may have been made locally or in the United States. Some of the products that produce greenhouse gases are medicines which control dangerous diseases or manage significant health problems. When we buy only locally, this could negatively affect the world economy, a complex interdependent web of which we are a part. And none of us are probably going to ride our bike or walk to work in the snow or in temperatures much below freezing or realistically, temperatures much below 50. And some of us may be unwilling to use products that while they are ecologically friendly, are not very effective. In Washington State, in 2010 the legislature outlawed the use of phosphates in dish washing detergents. After the law was passed, people in Washington went to other states to get the banned dishwashing detergents, because the non-phosphate dishwashing detergents don’t work as efficiently. Thus, when phosphates are outlawed, only outlaws will use phosphates; and it seems many people in Washington State are outlaws.
I hope we take time to explore our conscious and unconscious motivations that determine our choices about how we use our planetary resources and how we care for mother earth. I know this is a complex issue, but I believe if we are more aware of ourselves, we will make more intentional and educated decisions about how we use the precious resources of planet earth, and thus reduce our carbon footprint. You can go on the internet and evaluate your carbon footprint, and I would encourage you to do so, this will educate you; and it might also depress you.
What do you believe about the resources on planet earth? What is your definition of comfort, basic comfort? How do you make the choices about what you eat? What do you believe about your needs/rights to have water, electricity, heat? What do you believe about respecting and honoring mother earth, her resources, her minerals, plants, and animals? Do you believe all these issues—comfort, choices about food and other resources, and respecting the planet—are by necessity in direct conflict with each other? Why? What can we do to change that? Should we change that? How can we change that? Or perhaps, the more pressing question might be when will we change, and accept that our choices about comfort and resources need to be made while also respecting the planet? Will we have to be forced to change by laws or circumstances—like climate change—or will we change because we choose to, because our values call us to make these intentional changes?
In the Jewish Bible book of Genesis, God said to the first humans: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth…Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” This creation myth has been told and retold for thousands of years. It is part of our collective consciousness at some level. Many people act as if we have the right of dominion over the earth and all things on and of it. Many of us act as if everything on this earth has been provided for our consumption, pleasure, and comfort. After all, we’ve been told in the Bible that we have the divine right to use, and perhaps even use up, earth’s resources.
The Cherokee creation myth, the Story of Corn and Medicine, provides a very different message about humans and creatures and plants. “The earth began as nothing but water and darkness…Eventually… animals …wanted to move down to Earth [from heaven]…Humans came after the animals…In these early days, the plants, the animals, and the people all lived together as friends. As the people multiplied, however, the animals had less room to roam, and they were either slaughtered for food or trampled under the humans' feet… Finally the animals held a council to discuss what to do.”
Meaning and Myths
I looked through many creation myths while preparing this sermon—creation myths from ancient Japan, from the Aborigines in Australia, from ancient Mesopotamia and Scandinavia and from many Native American Nations. Many Native American creation myths told how humans arrived, multiplied and pushed the animals and plants into smaller and smaller regions of the earth. These Native American stories called humans to show respect to creatures, plants, and planet when we use them—not using them thoughtlessly without consideration for the effects of what we do, but using creatures and plants with humble gratitude for what we have received that allows us to be fed, comforted, clothed, and sheltered. In the Mayan creation myth, it explicitly states that the earth is to be held in great respect, and that the Mayan people are called to share their abundant resources with all plants and animals. Many Native American creation myths called humans to learn from the animals and treat them with reverence—sometimes Gods were in the guise of animals—like Coyote-- and in some stories animals are wise—like the Buffalo who taught the native American how to live free and in harmony with nature. I did find a few creation myths in Africa that stated that humans were of a higher order than animals: “the Earthcreator gave man a soul, a mind, the ability to talk and made man as a resemblance of himself. Therefore he was expecting man to behave like the creator” wisely caring for the Earthcreator’s many creations. I did not find a creation myth, other than in Genesis, that gave humans the right to subdue animals and plants, and have dominion over the earth. I believe that creation myths, like the Native American, the Mayan, the African, are not part of our Western collective consciousness. Yet these myths speak to us of another way of treating our planet and all things on it: to treat them with respect, reverence, and humble gratitude, to be wise and caring, to share our limited planetary resources with all plants and animals.
What To Do
I believe that many of us probably believe that we should do something about these issues. I would guess most of us recycle—some of us do it because the city would charge us to put out more garbage cans. I would guess some of us participate in community sponsored agriculture, or actively participate in community gardens. I know some of us utilize public transportation or have chosen to bike or walk, weather permitting, rather than driving. And I know—believe me, I know—that sometimes just the very idea that we have to do more, that we should do more—is just too exhausting or time consuming to even think about. I had a friend once say, “What’s the use of my choosing to bike everywhere, when I know on the other side of the world someone is driving around in a gas-guzzling, oil-smoking, carbon-belching cheap little car and undoing everything I do?” Good question. As ethical people, as moral people, as thoughtful people, as people of faith, how do we respond? Are we simply deluding ourselves, can we really made a global difference by acting locally? Or perhaps the better question is: is the global difference we are making within ourselves, by living our values? And when we live our values, do we serve as an example of ethical co-habitating with this planet? We know our children watch how we act more than what we say. I know, because of my therapy background, that people attend more to the behavior of others than to their words. So if we make that extra effort, if we consciously, intentionally act as ethical co-habitators with earth, perhaps others will notice and consider being better co-habitators with earth; perhaps our children will notice, perhaps our children will pass on these values.
Can we make a significant difference in greenhouse gases today through our action? Maybe not. But if we never try, we know we will never make a difference. We, you and I, all of us, will never be that light that shines on a new path, on a new way of being, if we don’t try, if we don’t try at least some of the time. If we don’t try at least some of the time, we are saying through our behavior that there is no hope for change, now or in the future. And I cannot, and I hope you will not, go there.
One of the keynote speakers at a Unitarian Universalist Prairie Star District Annual Conference (I believe it was in 2010) was Linda Barnes, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ames, Iowa, and an advocate of environmentally sustainable agriculture. She is not only an advocate of this type of agriculture; she has chosen to live her values. She and her family recently moved into a restored farmstead in rural Iowa and now operate a small diversified farm reminiscent of the self-sufficient farms of years gone by. She has incorporated wind power for electricity on her farm. And she and her husband are one of the first partners in Wholesome Harvest Organic Meats, an organic meat co-op that distributes products nationwide. She said at the conference: “We bought the farm to nurture ourselves and our family, to give to it of ourselves physically and spiritually. It strikes me as odd that we call the land our own, what I really want is for the land to call me its own. I want to belong. I want to feel the timelessness of the soil in my soul and the sunshine on my skin. I want to watch storms approach with calm mindful appreciation. I want to hear the prairie winds in my ears, and feel its freedom in my spirit. I want to belong. This is the heart of the seventh principle for me, the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
But I Am Not A Farmer
We may not be able to choose to make the radically life altering decisions that Linda and her family have made to live their values through sustainable agriculture on a farm far from an Urban center, but we can listen to how she has been transformed and take her words to heart. Linda says so eloquently what I have tried to express, that our beliefs, our faith must incorporate mother earth into them. We must want to belong to mother earth, not the other way around. We must reach out to our blue boat home with calm mindful appreciation. We must feel the connection to our planet in our soul. When we hold these beliefs, it is much more likely that we will act in ways to respect, honor, save our mother earth. When we hold this faith in our souls, we are more likely to prophetically call all people to act more responsibly toward the rich resources that we have been privileged to use. When we feel the soil in our soul, when we experience the freedom of the wind in our spirit, we will be transformed.
We will not be transformed if we stay in our homes watching TV or on the computer because we are living detached from the sky, the wind, the animals, and rocks. We will not be transformed if we go to the grocery store and buy whatever our taste buds desire, regardless of where it came from or how corporate farming destroyed the soil to produce it, or how humans have cut down vast forests, thus changing our climate, to create farmland for the veggies and fruits we like. We will not be transformed simply by educating ourselves on climate change or pollution or water resources. We will be transformed if we touch our blue boat home, if we consciously make sustainable decisions, if we hold in our hearts and speak with our voices respect for and honor of our planet and its resources, if we work together to be as green as we can in all that we do, and mostly we will be transformed if we demonstrate our love for our blue boat home with all its people, creatures, plants, and rocks.