It is trash day on our street. The bins are lined up at the end of driveways like sentinels. By the end of the day, truckloads of fragrant offerings will be off to the landfill. “Every year, the United States generates approximately 230 million tons of “trash”–about 4.6 pounds per person per day. Less than one-quarter of it is recycled; the rest is incinerated or buried in landfills.” (1) A bunch of what goes into the landfill is food we never ate, stuff we’ve grown tired of and replaced, the packaging for stuff we just acquired to replace the old stuff.
One of the new construction projects near my house is a beautiful structure. I wondered what it was to be for some time. A medical office? A new company headquarters? Turns out it is a self-storage complex: Space for stuff when your stuff outgrows your space. Turns out it is one of the fastest growing industries in the country.
We live in a culture that grooms us to have a core identity as consumers. We have become so good at it we don’t know where to put what we consume. As Pope Francis says in his encylical, Laudato Si: Care for Our Common Home, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” (Chapter 1, paragraph 21)
We are faced with an environmental crisis (if you disagree because you look around your house and all seems well, please, for the love of God, look, study, read. It is a crisis for your neighbors in this world, which means it is yours – we are our brother’s keeper). The answer to this crisis has often been framed as a simply a need for new and better technology. We just need to think better, and acquire better stuff to handle the problems. That notion is rubbish too.
First off, we humans don’t respond well to anything less than an immediate threat to our selves. Joseph Sittler, the prophetic Lutheran theologian said in 1962: “I do not believe that our relationship to the earth is liable to change for the better until it gets catastrophically worse. Our record indicates that we can walk with our eyes wide open straight into sheer destruction if there is a profit on the way-and that seems to me to be what we are doing now. I have no great expectation that human cussedness will somehow be quickly modified and turned into generosity or that humanity’s care of the earth will improve much. But I do go around planting trees on the campus.”
The deeper crisis is a spiritual, moral and social crisis. The very ways we think and the systems that make us think that way are broken. Pope Francis sums up the reason we have so much trash and need storage lockers: “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs to buy, own and consume.” (Chapter 6, paragraph 204) We are empty inside. We try to fill that emptiness by gorging on food, things, activities, recreation. Our basements, garages and calendars are full of things we have and things we do. Yet, none of it satisfies because we’re chasing the wrong things, spurred on by systems that depend on keeping us feeling empty. Do more, buy more, dream of more, and you’ll be happy. But happy never comes. All that comes is the rapidly approaching cliff we’re racing toward when life will be no more.
Thomas Berry, a wise and insightful writer with a spiritual and ecological insight notes: “[O]ur human economy is derivative from the Earth economy. To glory in a rising Gross Domestic Product with an irreversibly declining Earth Product is an economic absurdity.” We measure things and success by profit and accumulation – it is all we know. We need to re-learn how to evaluate life and living.
Gus Speth is a lawyer, a former Yale University Dean and advisor to nations around the world. He puts his finger on the very heart of our environmental crisis: “I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
The first thing we need to stop consuming is the lie that we are consumers and life is made happier by the accumulation of things and activities.
Tim Olson, Lead Pastor