Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

No Bag, Please
distributed 11/11/05 - ©2005

When I go shopping, I experience a crucial moment at the cash register, a brief second in which to catch the clerk with the message: "I don't need a bag for that."

If I say it too soon, while the employee is focused on ringing up a small transaction, my unexpected words may not be heard. If I say it too late, the one or two items will have already been dropped into a sack. There's an element of sport in catching the perfect moment, delivering the words after the first piece of merchandise has been waved across the scanner <beep>, and before it has been plopped into the ubiquitous wrapping.

The technique depends on the store. At a grocery, the bagging doesn't tend to happen until after everything has been rung up. I can grab my purchase before it is shrouded in another layer of plastic. Unless, of course, there is a dutiful bagger poised at the end of the conveyor belt, in which case a pre-emptive "no bag" message must be announced well before the clerk has passed along the goods.

Most other stores have an approach of scan-n-bag. Right next to the cash register, there's a cleverly designed dispenser that holds the plastic sacks open. In a single motion, the product is swept from the counter, across the bar code reader, and into the bag. Often, the counter is built so that there's no place for the clerk to place the item except in a bag. This is the kind of store where split-second timing is so important.

I find a small feeling of satisfaction whenever I win at this game. As I leave the store, I know that I have managed to reduce the amount of waste by an infinitesimal amount, and I have taken a conscientious stand against mindless business practices which presume that we all want and need more packaging.

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"We buy a wastebasket and take it home in a plastic bag. Then we take the wastebasket out of the plastic bag, and put the bag in the wastebasket." -- Lily Tomlin

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When I meet with church groups, the question of "what can we do" almost always comes up in some form. My answer almost always refers to a book from the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. The message of that book distills down to, "don't sweat the choice between paper and plastic bags, and don't agonize over the sort of coffee cups at your church fellowship hour." The scientists, working from hard data about measurable environmental impacts, urge us to make a few really important choices that will have dramatic and lasting effects -- to get a fuel efficient car, sign up for renewable energy, and live in a smaller home close to work.

After reciting the scientists' advice one day, I was challenged by a person that I respect deeply -- a truly wise man, a pastor, a theologian, and a committed advocate for social justice and ecological stewardship. Charles acknowledged the practical effectiveness of the well-researched recommendations, but he also named another sort of effectiveness. Making the choice about coffee cups and shopping bags, he said, is important in raising our consciousness, in defining our perspectives, and in helping us know that we can -- and must -- translate our values into action. Even if there's no discernable difference in the ecological impact between "paper and plastic," it is important for us to make a choice.

I found a similar message in Parker J. Palmer's book, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring. Palmer draws on wisdom from Taoism to develop the notion of "right action" and intentionality. Too often, he says, we allow others to shape our choices and define our habits, instead of choosing how and when to act. We are more centered in our spirituality when our actions are grounded in awareness and intention.

It is interesting to look at the "priority actions" recommended by the Union of Concerned Scientists from the perspective of "right action." Many of them are very effective because they call for a single decision (on a car, a home location, or the sort of electricity purchased) where the environmental benefits continue without the need to renew the choice. They are effective precisely because the allow us to be un-attentive on a daily basis. (Some of their other recommendations -- like walk, bike or use public transportation, and eat less meat -- do require ongoing awareness and choices.)

Palmer also differentiates between instrumental and effective actions. "An expressive act is one that I take not to achieve a goal outside myself but to express a conviction, a leading, a truth that is within me. An expressive act is one taken because if I did not take it I would be denying my own insight, gift, nature."

Sweating the small stuff, calling myself to an awareness of whether or not I need a bag at the store, brings me to awareness about myself and my world. It shapes me as a person of conscience, even if my perfectly-timed "I don't need a bag!" has no lasting impact on the clerk, the store, or the global environment. It does have a lasting impact on me.

Living as we do in a world where human impacts are overwhelming planetary systems -- where we are already in "overshoot" in our non-sustainable use of resources and our warping of the climate -- it is essential that we think instrumentally, and weigh the practical effectiveness of our actions. As the concerned scientists recommend, we need to make the most out of every decision. We must craft personal lifestyles and social structures which are effective in reducing human impacts. But that practical effectiveness will be far richer for us when it is joined with a spiritual centering.

Refusing a bag, turning off a light, picking up some litter -- these are spiritual disciplines that inform our awareness of relationships and responsibilities. May you find joy and fulfillment in these little things, even as you also seek large-scale effectiveness.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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