Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Packing Light
distributed 4/19/02 - ©2002

One week from today, I'll be starting a backpacking trip at the Grand Canyon.

Our group will spend three days on backcountry trails, exploring just a small section of that astounding Wonder of the World. We start from the South Rim, at an elevation of over 7,000 feet, and dive to the Colorado River, almost a mile below. In just a few miles of hiking, we go from high country pine woodlands to the hot, dry inner canyon.

The trip down will be a challenge to our knees. The trip up will be a challenge to our legs, lungs and hearts. And I'm confident that the beauty and wonder of that awesome place will make all of the sweat and aches worthwhile.

The six members of our group are doing the final negotiating about what equipment to take along. The choices we make are important ones. Once we drop over the rim, we are totally on our own for three days -- off of the main trails, out of cell phone contact, no convenience stores, not even reliable sources of water for the miles between campsites.

So, we want to make sure that we take everything we need. That begins with water. Each person will start hiking with at least a gallon of water (8 pounds), and we'll carry redundant systems for purifying water from the Colorado River and from springs. Other priority items are food and first aid gear, good maps and trail guides.

Lots of other items have been dropped from the packing list -- safety gear that only the paranoid would want, duplicates pieces of equipment where just one will do, and stuff that qualifies as "toys" or luxuries. We're now starting to watch the long-range weather forecasts. If the predictions are for dry weather, we can leave our tents behind, and shave 3 - 6 pounds from each person's load.

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.

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As we set out for our hike, I expect to see a dramatic contrast to our minimalist packing.

In the Park Service campground on the South Rim, we'll see 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.

Our group of backpackers is asking again and again, "how little do I need?" The mobile home drivers ask, "how much can I have?" We struggle to prune every possible ounce; they seem to take delight in adding every possible 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 will be intimately acquainted with every pound that we carry. 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 feel the costs up-close and personal; their costs are relatively abstract.

Doing without a folding chair, or even another change of clothes, does not feel like a deprivation to a backpacker. It is a choice gladly made to enhance our overall comfort.

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These 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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