Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Dumpster Diving at Church
distributed 4/11/08 - ©2008

An "environmentalist of the week" was a regular feature in the worship bulletin of a church in Denver. For several years, almost every Sunday, some member of the congregation was recognized for her or his good deeds.

The list was diverse, and at times a bit strange. Ed recycles his newspapers. Marge composts her coffee grounds and vegetable peelings. Robin wrote her Senators about an energy bill. Wanda "dumpster dives" for decent furniture that has been discarded. Pete installed a 2-handled toilet flusher that saves water. John often rides his bike to work. Mary led a Sierra Club class on urban sprawl. Margaret organized a community supported agriculture group to buy locally-grown food. Jean sews crafts from scraps of fabric.

The pastor who maintained the list was shameless about eavesdropping on conversations and soliciting gossip to get fresh tidbits. An often-named "anonymous" member was clearly part of the minister's family. I'm sure it was hard work to find such a constant flow of stories and behaviors within a mid-sized congregation.

It would have been much less work to get a book on "100 things you can do to save the planet", and list an informative tip in the bulletin every week. But I see some very strong benefits to the "environmentalist of the week" approach.

  • Through the years, a wide variety of people were thanked for doing environmentally good things. That affirmation of their actions makes people feel good, encourages them to keep it up, and to do even more.

  • The weekly bulletin item makes it clear that there are lots of "environmentalists" of many varieties in the church. "Caring for creation" isn't something done only by a handful of passionate eco-activists. A businessman, a young mother, a hospice chaplain, a teacher, a retired couple -- people that may not lift themselves up as environmentalists -- were shown to be concerned and active.

  • Naming an "environmentalist of the week" generates a congregational culture where it is clear that "we do those things here." Recycling, checking the car's tire pressure, and using cloth shopping bags are not novel or controversial ideas that require a lot of education. They're familiar things that are done by our neighbors and friends, and that reflect the core values of the church.

Two sentences in the Sunday bulletin provided some helpful information about Earth-friendly practices and activities. Just as importantly, it tapped into the distinctive characteristics of a church community to name congregation members as environmental mentors, and to connect everyday actions with the church's espoused values.

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There's a weak point in the environmental movement -- and I confess that I've often been an active contributor to it. In our efforts to get people to do the right thing, we often assume that personal and social change is a purely rational process. Facts and a cost-benefit analysis are offered as the basis for transformations of our behavior and values.

In many churches, when members are encouraged to change to compact fluorescent light bulbs, the campaign stresses the wonderful energy savings that can be achieved, and the related reductions in global warming. When we encourage folk to recycle aluminum cans, we provide lots of information about dramatically reduced environmental impact from re-using that metal.

That sort of information is good and important, but it may not do much to change the way people live their lives. As the book Fostering Sustainable Behavior asserts, "Campaigns that rely solely on providing information often have little or no effect on behavior."

People make decisions about their behaviors and purchases for many reasons. Solid facts can be an essential part of those choices. Often, though, a human element is the decisive factor in getting people to act on what they know and believe.

If I've heard about how good compact fluorescent light bulbs are -- and by now, most of us have heard that message countless times -- I may be motivated to actually use the things if somebody that I know and trust tells me that she's been using them for years. When the youth group starts to put gentle peer pressure on anybody who throws a can in the trash, instead of in the recycling container, their recycling rate will soon approach 100%.

The "environmentalist of the week" puts a human face on the common lists of things we can do. An affirmation of community values can do at least as much to shape decisions and behaviors as a well-documented set of facts.

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A classic story about large-scale behavior change comes from the dust bowl years of the 1930s. In the midst of that great regional crisis, the US government launched a huge information campaign to teach farmers about practices that would reduce soil erosion. Distributing lots of brochures, though -- filled with information on planting windbreaks and plowing differently -- had almost no effect on what farmers did on their land.

A second approach by the government used a very different strategy, and had much better results. A small number of farmers received direct and extensive assistance from agriculture agents. In key locations, they started using the new farming techniques. Everybody could see how easy and effective these practices are.

When folk in farm country saw one of their respected neighbors planting trees as windbreaks, and plowing in ways that helped cut down on blowing dust, they paid attention. They could talk to a friend, instead of a stranger paid by the government. They could know that they would not be the first one in the county to do these strange things.

By combining a people-centered strategy with good information, the new practices spread quickly. The rows of trees that still line mid-western fields are a continuing witness to the effectiveness of the second approach.

As we plan how to engage the members of our churches and communities in environmental actions, we do want to be effective. We do want people to act. We will make more of a difference -- and we'll be more in tune with the character of congregations -- when we remember to celebrate the presence of the folk in our midst who are already doing good and faithful things.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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