REFLECTION: How Getting to Zero as a congregation changed me personally

T2016 05 iphone 196his essay is a (slightly) longer version of the back-page GRID Magazine article (June 2016) entitled Web of Life, and is reprinted here with permission of the author, Jane Dugdale. Our thanks to Jane, and to GRID for reaching out!

I think of myself as a pretty savvy environmentalist.  After I read Paul Ehrlich’s  Population Bomb in the 1970s I volunteered with Planned Parenthood. My Sierra Club card says I’ve been a member since 1976. But when the Ecology Mission Group at my congregation, Central Baptist Church in Wayne, decided to focus on climate change as a moral and spiritual issue, including a campaign for “Getting to Zero” emissions, I was in for a pretty steep learning curve. My participation in that effort connected me to efforts going on nearby and far away, made me aware how differently people of good will think about what can be done, and led to some happy realizations.

Nearby, in my own congregation, we have people like Andy Smith and Chuck Marshall, career environmentalists, whose efforts with the Ecology Mission Group led our congregation years ago to install solar panels.  “Getting to Zero” emissions as a congregation, Chuck told us, would need to be about transportation emissions to and from church activities, since building efficiencies offsets were already at zero emissions. The congregation voted unanimously to adopt the campaign. Nearby also were like-minded community neighbors who filled the bus we organized to the Climate March in NYC September 2014, sharing our amazement at the diversity of the 400,000 marchers from around the world. Nearby as well was Mark Wallace at Swarthmore College, who led us to study his book Green Christianity.

Andy Smith, on the other hand, urged us to go further away and dig deeper, hearing from Jennifer Morgan of The Universe Story and Charles Eisenstein of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, both of whom he brought to speak to us. I was not alone in being awed by the implications of their vision based on the “new science” that recognizes that everything in the universe is connected and each thing influences everything else. Spirituality took on cosmic relevance for me.

Meanwhile, with support and encouragement from PA Interfaith Power & Light, “Getting to Zero” was getting varied reactions.   For some, the idea that we should tally our miles, our MPG, and the equivalent emissions for travel to church activities – and then purchase offsets for those emissions – was a logical and doable learning tool.  For others, it turned out to be a chore they were happy to leave to Chuck’s estimation.  For yet others the idea of purchasing offsets was something only the rich could afford.  Monitoring the process made me more tolerant, if not just more resigned, to these differences.

Of the offsets themselves, our congregational favorite became the purchase of trees: we could offset annually a ton of carbon emissions by purchasing a tree for $10, to be planted by the nursery Trees, Water, and People, located a few miles from our sister church in Santa Elena, El Salvador.  Personally, I was challenged to learn how to take better care of the trees on my own property, so I took a “Tree Tenders” course offered by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society.  I was also challenged by the insights of people like Naomi Klein, in This Changes Everything, that the whole idea of offsets is second-best to actually reducing the burning of fossil fuels in the first place.

Probably the most satisfying outcome of our focus and campaign was the realization that a fair effort can make a significant impact. In February of this year we celebrated “Getting to Zero” Sunday, achieving purchased offsets representing 50 tons of reductions, more than our 33-ton travel carbon footprint.  We followed the progress during the year on a poster that blotted out the carbon with blue sky in 3-ton increments.  If our small congregation did this in a year, we reason, the cost of carbon control on a national and worldwide scale may not be as high as critics of carbon control say.

And for me personally, I celebrate a new way of talking about the environment to my grandchildren.  The poster helped them understand the idea of carbon footprint.  Recently at a restaurant they wondered why another customer, holding a cigarette, was blowing smoke from his mouth.  When I reminded them that burning anything leaves behind black carbon, they immediately made the connection to his lungs getting black.  “You mean he has a carbon footprint in his lungs?”  Unintended consequences of the learning curve.