Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

distributed 3/6/15 - ©2015

It feels a bit like a letter to an advice column.

Dear Abby: My long-time friend has gotten a bit weird recently. She's a wonderful person, and I've always valued her knowledge and opinions on all kinds of topics. But every conversation these days quickly shifts to something about her cat. When I mentioned the new play at our community theater, she told me that Fluffy always claims "center stage" in her house. I'm ready to dump the friendship. What can I do? -- "Catatonic in the Catskills"

A fixation isn't healthy. For the one who compulses, life is lived in a tunnel where much that is beautiful and interesting gets lost. And for those around the fixated one, annoyance can demolish the relationship.

Take that dynamic in personal relationships, kick it up to social movements, and we've got a real problem. In the Dear Abby letter above, and replace "her cat" with "climate change." As the old saying goes, "Enough is too much!"

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Climate change is The Big Issue of our day. I don't want to suggest that we should ignore or diminish the need for action. The regular readers of Notes are well aware of the importance that I give to climate concerns. But that status as the big issue doesn't mean that it is the only issue. Indeed, I'd been a bit worried that my weekly commentaries were shading toward a fixation, and that other topics were getting short shrift.

So when I saw a classic example of climate fixation -- one that makes Fluffy and the theater seem pretty mild -- I was primed to expand that one case toward a larger theme about the health of the environmental movement. I fear that we're losing sight of the diversity of causes which need to be addressed.

So here is the astonishing article that got me thinking. In late 2013, the highly respected British newspaper, The Guardian, ran a story about a soon-to-take-effect fee on plastic shopping bags in England. (In the UK version of the English language, they're called "carrier bags".) The story had some interesting information about whether the shopping bag fee leads to other pro-environmental behavior changes, which is why it turned up in somebody's Facebook post.

In just the second paragraph, things started to seem a bit weird. "Like recycling, re-using carrier bags has become something of an iconic 'sustainable behaviour'. But whatever else its benefits may be, it is not, in itself, an especially good way of cutting carbon."

Well, no. And from what I've seen when US cities and states consider banning the bag, "cutting carbon" isn't on the list of motivating factors. In coastal communities, the enormous ecological impact of millions of bags in the ocean is a primary concern. Here in Colorado, with no oceans at hand, the many other problems include clogged storm drains, dangers to wildlife, the burden on landfills, wasted petroleum, and swarms of ugly bags that get caught in trees.

I've never heard anybody suggest that we need to outlaw single-use shopping bags because they cause global warming. Nor have I heard the argument that reusable bags are a powerful "gateway behavior" that will lead to more bike riding, lowered thermostats, and LED light bulbs.

But researchers in Wales looked for that connection. "My colleagues at Cardiff University analysed the impact of the introduction of the carrier bag charge. Although their use reduced dramatically, rates of other low-carbon behaviours among the general public remained unaffected." The author continues: "To be clear: fewer plastic bags would be a small, good thing. But as a major two-day conference at the Royal Society headquarters in London this week made clear, 'every little helps' is a dangerously misleading mantra when it comes to climate change."

The new play in town isn't about Fluffy the cat. And cutting down on bags in the ocean around Great Britain doesn't have to be about climate change. Maybe it is OK to just celebrate a reduction in litter.

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What else deserves our attention as we seek the health of the precious Earth community? The research into "planetary boundaries" tells us that biodiversity loss (aka species extinction), overloads of nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers, and changes in land use are larger threats that climate change.

I've written in the last couple of weeks (See! Not fixated at all!) about the dangers of antibiotics, genetically modified organisms, and fracking (aside from its climate impacts). Then there are the toxic chemicals that are so pervasive throughout the biosphere, all sorts of questions about water -- quantity, quality, and who owns it -- light and noise pollution, topsoil loss, etc., etc., etc. And of course, many of these issues have strong social justice components, too.

If every environmental conversation turns toward climate change, at least two things are likely to happen. (1) We will become so annoying that our friends -- and potential allies -- will be ready to dump the friendship. (2) All those other issues of great importance will not get the attention and action that they deserve, and our world will suffer greatly.

Seven years ago, I wrote that "I'm concerned that we're paying too much attention to global warming." My point then was that we should see climate change as a symptom of our Earth-abusing culture, not as a single problem to solve. But as I see my colleagues in the environmental movement -- faith-based and secular alike -- putting so much emphasis on climate and energy, I do fear that other important issues are being neglected.

Fluffy's human companion is no fun when she can only think about the cat. We can get pretty annoying, and dangerously unaware, when get fixated on just one issue. Let's be sure that we take time, at least on occasion, to notice what else is going on around us, to celebrate successes like fewer shopping bags in the UK, and to support those who are doing work on a wide variety of issues.

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I do want to add two other very affirmative notes about The Guardian. While the framing of the article that I quoted does strike me as oddly fixated, the conclusion of the story is valid and important. "Nudging, tweaking, or cajoling people into piecemeal behavioural changes like re-using plastic bags is not a proportionate response to climate change. Engaging the public through their personal carbon footprints is really only a means to an end -- and that end is a political and economic system that has sustainability as its central organising principle." Amen to that.

And, just today, The Guardian has announced a dramatic new commitment to in-depth reporting on climate issues, including the political and economic systems. I am deeply grateful for their leadership in the media world, and I am sure that I will be quoting many more articles from that source in the future.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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