Playing Chicken with Care for the Earth
Why I Wonder about Wonder-Filled Approaches to Environmental Crisis
On Saturday, members of the congregation gathered to unpack our stuff into a new space. Gathered in the fellowship hall during a break in our activity came the specific and anxious question, “Who is going to make the coffee for hospitality hour after worship?” Embedded in the question was the asker’s intention to no longer be the only one who did it, and concern about who was going to wash the cups.
A congregational leader had a solution: “Why don’t we get a Keurig? No one will have to make coffee and there’s no clean up.” I blanched at these words and said aloud, “I really object to using a Keurig. Every single cup of coffee produces plastic waste.” “Oh no, Pastor,” came the response. “There’s a company now that makes compostable cups.” I had other objections too, but at that moment it was best to let the conversation go. I went home feeling dismayed and frustrated.
It may seem like a small thing—a Keurig machine—in the big picture. But to me, Keurigs join Hummers in the category of bright, shiny, symbols of reckless, heedless waste. Hummers, Keurigs and other machines like them do not solve a problem, and they contribute to ecological disaster with a kind of blithe, “this is expensive but I can afford it and cool so I don’t care” appeal that shocks me. Even if we aren’t solving the problem of oceans filled with plastic trash, or reducing our use of single-use plastic, at the very least we should avoid making new and unnecessary choices that systematically add to it. What frustrated me that Saturday is that it didn’t occur to the group that this was an ethical decision.
A common approach to care of creation focuses on the beauty and wonder of the created world as motivation for changing behavior. A recent Pew Study found that while Americans are becoming less religious in terms of attending religious services and prayer, the number of people who report feeling “a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being as well as a deep sense of wonder about the universe has risen.” The hope, therefore, is that a profound sense of wonder about and a deepened connection to the natural world will inspire more robust care for it.
I confess that I am dubious about the “wonder” approach to creation care. I think to myself, “Really? If polar ice melting, polar bears starving, trash vortexes and dead zones in the Pacific the size of Australia, sea levels rising, coastal cities destroyed by hurricanes, crop failures, rising temperatures – if people dying – isn’t enough to inspire people to change their ways, how is a pretty sunset going to do it?
I harbor a robust skepticism of wonder as motivation for the ethical life. It’s not that I don’t think that wonder can and does inspire individuals to follow a higher path, but for the majority of people I just don’t think it’s enough. People make decisions with ethical ramifications for all sorts of reasons, including meeting their basic needs for food, water, shelter, and warmth a la Maslow’s hierarchy, their level of access to resources, kin-based, ethnic, and national loyalties, custom, cost, ambition, sentimentality, and also, yes, genuine love for the neighbor, rigorous ethical thinking, and wonder. Ethical decisions are usually based on a mixture of these motivations.
Take for example, animal lovers. (Some of my best friends are animal lovers.) They adore their cats and dogs, wonder at their cleverness and cuteness, post sweet pictures online, and contribute to organizations to preserve giraffes and tigers from extinction. All good, all fine. Very ethical. But many of these same folks rise from their computer desks and sit down to enjoy for dinner a chicken whose short life was spent in the atrocious and inhuman conditions of factory farms. Or, as I cheerfully like to call it, torture chicken. Not good, not fine, not ethical.
The thing is, in general, the users of Keurigs and eaters of factory chicken are not “bad people.” Some of them are extremely good people. People have lives to live, kids to take care of, bills to pay, church to attend, volunteer activities, and sometimes the life of an anonymous chicken just isn’t a motivator as they navigate through the day. People assume perhaps, that it can’t be that bad, and maybe choose not to think about the chickens’ sentient experience at all because chicken is delicious and conventionally raised chicken is cheap, but few actively wish upon chickens the misery of their factory-raised lives.
Similarly, the Keurig-users. The church leader who suggested we get one is a dedicated person who pours out hours of service for the good of the church and the larger world. When the aforementioned machine was suggested, it was meant to solve a problem and soothe distress. It was entirely well-intentioned, certainly not intended to add to the peril of the planet. (Some would wonder where hell I get off saying “well-intentioned.” It was a good idea period. Little plastic cups: big deal.) The point is, this leader is a good and ethical person.
Not Hummer drivers, though. They are bad people. All of them.
Time to bring two major theologians into the conversation. Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Paul Tillich (1886-1965) will help me explain why wonder isn’t enough.
Now, Tillich didn’t believe that human nature was fundamentally sinful as moral condition, but that the human condition is one of limitation and mortality, and this inevitably results in sin. As I see it, adding to the degradation of the planet or sustaining one’s own life at the expense and suffering of other life, is considered sin. And because of our limited, material existence we can neither avoid sin nor achieve ethical perfection, no matter how hard we try. For example, should we travel to the Galapagos Islands and return so filled with wonder that we become ecological activists, we still have to navigate, we still have to eat, and we still can’t control or foresee every outcome of our choices.
For his part, Martin Luther taught that Christians are simultaneously saints and sinners (simul justus et peccator). As opposed to Tillich, who was modern, Luther, who was medieval, believed that human nature is tragically flawed, deeply and unavoidably sinful. That’s why we just keep driving fossil fuel-fueled cars all the while knowing that global climate change is creating a massive refugee crisis. Because, even if we do care, we don’t care enough to change. We do not, in fact, love the anonymous refugees as we love ourselves.
At the same time, Luther teaches, we are saints, because, through the grace of Jesus Christ received in faith, we’re not only forgiven but also made new—more and more in Christ’s image. As a result, we really are better, more ethical people. Both conditions, Luther insists, are 100% true at the same time.
So maybe out of love for our vulnerable neighbors, we decide to walk and take the bus or train. Tillich reminds us that those amended actions are still not perfectly ethical, and Luther reminds us that we won’t reach perfection in this life, but we can still say that they are undeniably better. And I think it is here that indeed, wonder can help us.
A friend of mine recently posted gorgeous pictures she took from a small airplane of the horizon just above the clouds over Santa Barbara as well as of the Pacific coastline with the title, “Went to church.”
Yes, I believe she did. The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork (Psalm 19:1). What else can we do but be filled with awe and wonder and thanksgiving when we encounter such beauty? I am definitely pro-wonder. Wonder can surely provide motivation for care of creation, and I do not doubt that for a few, profound experiences of wonder are entirely life-changing.
But for most people, wonder resulting in care for creation needs to be combined with education that expands our knowledge and our limited moral imagination, such that we become aware of the situation of the chickens and the climate-driven refugees, as well as specific ethical instruction so that we understand that we are implicated in and responsible for easing their suffering. And along with education and ethical instruction, it is necessary for Holy Spirit to work a work in our hearts and in our self-focused human nature, such that hearts of stone soften, such that we are moved by compassion to change and act.
Wonder is one of the resources Holy Spirit has at their disposal to inveigle, nudge, call, convict, move, and change our human hearts. Whether human nature is formed by inner conditions or restricted by outer ones, it serves itself—it is turned in upon itself, as Augustine said. At the same time, the renewing grace of God is always, already at work transforming our inner selves into one that resembles Christ such that this person-made-new might significantly sacrifice, even pour out one’s life, for the (ecological) salvation of another (Philippians 2:6-8).
I am by no means an exception to any of this. The material limitations of my existence and the stunted compassion of my sinful human nature result in vast ethical shortcomings. But because I understand what is at stake and embrace of my responsibility for the planet’s wellbeing, and buoyed by the sheer wonder of it all, I ask Christ to help me love my neighbor and the planet more than I do now. In the strength of these things, I engage in political advocacy, purchase only organic and free-range food items, drive an electric car, recycle, and avoid creating single-use trash. This isn’t all I could do. It falls far short. This is better than not doing it. It helps.
And that Keurig machine? It’s red, it’s beautiful, and it’s sitting on the counter in our fellowship hall. To my relief, in subsequent conversations, members of the congregation said that they thought that the K-cups were pretty expensive (wasting money is a sin church-folks understand). They concluded that it would be better to rely on a plain old drip coffee maker. And I will make sure that we get some of those compostable cups.