Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Absolute Zero
distributed 8/3/07 - ©2007

What a difference a few miles makes! I live in Denver, Colorado, and I'm deeply jealous of my nearby neighbors in Boulder, only 20 miles away.

Often lampooned for its very liberal leanings, Boulder does "walk the talk" in some important ways. The one that stimulated my thoughts for today has to do with garbage.

Boulder County is served by the visionary recycling company, Eco-Cycle. In partnership with local governments, Eco-Cycle is working toward "zero-waste communities." They're absolutely serious about it.

In 2006, Denver recycled 10% of its waste stream. In the same year, Boulder diverted more than 50% of its municipal waste from landfills. (The national average is 28.5%.)

Denver hopes to hit a 30% level of waste diversion by 2011. The communities served by Eco-Cycle are guided by a visionary goal of 100% of resources kept from landfills.

Eco-Cycle CEO Eric Lombardi said, "There's no doubt that Zero Waste is an idealistic -- if not near impossible -- goal. But whether or not it can be done in every instance is really beside the point. Being on the path to zero is the point. Because once you have established zero as the goal ... then you have a benchmark against which you can measure your future actions."

Boulder is not alone in their no-waste commitment. Several other US cities have adopted zero waste goals. In 2002, New Zealand became the first country in the world to adopt a national policy of zero waste.

This challenging new approach isn't about lots of recycling. It is a whole new paradigm for the use of materials. A New Zealand document, Getting There: The Road to Zero Waste (PDF - 1.4 Mb), describes the radical shift.

Zero Waste is a whole-system approach to addressing the problem of society's unsustainable resource flows. Zero Waste encompasses waste elimination at source through product design and producer responsibility, and waste reduction strategies further down the supply chain such as Cleaner Production, product dismantling, recycling, re-use and composting. Communities that implement Zero Waste strategies are aiming to switch from wasteful and damaging waste disposal methods to value-added resource recovery systems that will help build sustainable local economies. As such Zero Waste is in complete opposition to landfilling and incineration.
I know of several congregations in the Boulder area that have worked with Eco-Cycle to have "zero waste" events. Those special events are both good environmental stewardship, and great occasions for education. Our good friends at First Congregational UCC in Longmont (located in Boulder County) are going beyond single events. They are developing church policies, educational programs and practical resources so that their church facilities and church programs will be "zero waste" all the time.

Boulder's commitment to a clear-cut, visionary goal for zero waste brought to mind two other settings in which an absolutist perspective provides an uncompromising guide to shaping policies. One is historical, the other comes from recent events.

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Elizur Wright, Jr. was an anti-slavery crusader in the early 1830s. He advocated "immediate emancipation" of the enslaved peoples in the United States.

As we think about his activist stance, it is important to remember that slavery was so embedded in the economics and culture of the American South that many believed it could not be abolished, and certainly not quickly. Freeing slaves was considered impossible, a totally unrealistic goal.

In his writings, Wright gave voice to sentiments of his critics, to those who thought that only small changes were possible. "Why do they not confine themselves to the doctrine of gradual repentance, and not attempt more than they are able to effect?"

His response recognized that immediate abolition was an impossible goal.

Now if I may be allowed to make a distinction too elementary to be overlooked by an infant, a doctrine is one thing, and a plan is another. When we say that slave-holders ought to emancipate their slaves immediately, we state a doctrine which is true. We do not propose such a plan. Our plan, and it has been explained often enough not to be misunderstood, is simply this: To promulgate the true doctrine of human rights ... till it forms one of the foundation principles and parts indestructible of the public soul. ... By prosecuting the plan described, ... we expect to see, at length, the full tide of public sympathy setting in favor of the slave.
The call for immediate emancipation set forth a moral standard by which any policy or progress could be measured.

The modern example is reported by science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, in a New Yorker article, The Darkening Sea: what carbon emissions are doing to the ocean (11/20/06). She writes about researcher Ken Caldeira, an expert on the crisis of "ocean acidification". His studies show that the same gasses that cause global warming are leading to changes in ocean chemistry. The more acidic water is starting to dissolve the shells of sea animals.

Kolbert reports that Caldeira was in Washington to brief some members of Congress. When asked about the appropriate emissions target for carbon dioxide, he said, "Zero."

He explained to the legislators, "If you're talking about mugging little old ladies, you don't say, 'What's our target for the rate of mugging little old ladies?' You say, 'Mugging little old ladies is bad, and we're going to try to eliminate it.' You recognize that you might not be a hundred per cent successful, but your goal is to eliminate the mugging of little old ladies. And I think we need to eventually come around to looking at carbon dioxide emissions the same way."

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Politics is often described as "the art of the possible." Developing laws and public policy is all about compromise. It requires legislators to turn away from absolutes, and find enough common ground among diverse constituencies so that legislation can be passed.

The US House and Senate this summer have dealt with the Farm Bill, energy legislation and policies on climate change. Their actions have been filled with compromises, and fall far short of what is needed to deal with the crises of our day.

In the halls of Congress and in other legislative chambers, that compromise is necessary. But in the broader society, it is also necessary to have bold leaders who will "promulgate the true doctrine ... till it forms one of the foundation principles and parts indestructible of the public soul."

The goal of absolute zero -- whether in waste, slavery, or in CO2 emissions -- sets a clear moral standard. Unless we claim those bold, absolute goals, we will never be called into different paradigms or new ways of living in relationship with all of God's creation.

May we, in our churches and our communities, find the courage to identify the absolute principles that will be our guide, and have the courage to speak of them tirelessly.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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