Sustainable Spirituality: The Foundation for Green Living

What’s better for the environment: using paper bags that could increase deforestation or plastic bags that result in debris everywhere from city streets to water ways? Is it more environmentally friendly to use energy to wash a dirty plate or to use a throw-away paper plate? What about sending greetings cards, reading books and newspapers, all of which use paper and kill trees? Or what about the energy wasted by taking a hot shower? Or what about any of the activities we do that are a regular part of our lives – activities whose impact on the environment we don’t consider? Many of us want to preserve the planet. How can we be sure that the choices we make are the best green choices we can make? How do we balance the impact of one choice over another?

A recent article in the New York Times helped to underscore the complexity of making choices for green living. The article, Cleaner for the Environment, not for the Dishes, explored the conundrum of using phosphate free dish detergents resulting in spotted glassware and dishes less clean than those washed with conventional detergents. Perceiving that the dishes weren’t sufficiently clean, some people pre-washed the dishes, thereby using more water than what was already used by the dish washer. Within a week of the article’s publication, nearly 400 comments touted the benefits of various environmentally safe cleaning products, excoriated the water wasted by using dish washers, and recommended a variety of solutions to spotted glasses.

I understand the challenge in the choices we make to live greener lives. Many of us are not always sure what option will lead to decreasing our carbon footprint. Some options are clear-cut, like using compact fluorescent light bulbs throughout our homes or taking reusable cloth bags to the grocery store for shopping. But when I wash a jar that’s a sticky mess before putting it in the recycling bin, I wonder: does the energy used to clean and recycle this jar out weight the benefit of recycling it?

Discussions about environmental choices remind me of when I was an adolescent attending Catholic school. We were normal adolescents preoccupied with sex and wanted very specific instructions about “how far we could go” before committing a sin. Although it was sometimes an effective strategy that we would employ to get out of a calculus or chemistry lesson, it represented a legalistic mindset that failed to grasp the basic understanding of human sexuality and its relationship to the sanctity of a person.

At times our approach to green living is much like the approach taken by the Catholic youth of my era on sexuality: legalistically determining the line between right and wrong. Just as this approach didn’t work well for adolescents and human sexuality, it’s not an effective way to move toward greener living.
Sustainable living into the future requires a new understanding of our lives on the planet. This new understanding recognizes the distinctive nature of our planet Earth. Our planet is the only one we know that can sustain complex life. Because of this, our planet has a unique distinction not just in our solar system but also in the solar systems nearest to us which scientists can analyze. This distinction makes the Earth unique, set-apart or sacred because of its ability to sustain life.

As part of the complex web of life on Earth, our lives need to work with the planets natural rhythm to sustain the complexity of life. For far too long, human life has worked in opposition to the natural rhythm of life on our planet. The change green living requires is not the superficial choices between paper or plastic bags and washing dishes or disposing of paper plates. At heart, the change needed will result in a new way of living on the planet. The foundation for a new way is living is sustainable spirituality.

Spirituality is the way in which we create, encounter or discover meaning, purpose, and value in life. As we encounter something meaningful in lives, our lives become imbued with meaning or purpose, or value. Sustainable spirituality is rooted in the understanding that the discovery or encounter that is meaningful, purposeful or valuable is part of the interconnected web of life on our planet. Sustainable spirituality recognizes that spirituality for the coming era of life on the planet cannot be reduced to private behavior and experience but is intrinsically bound to the web of life on the planet. This intrinsic link is present because spirituality is fundamentally about the way we live. Because green living requires living in a new way, the foundation for life, which is spirituality, must be apprehended in a fundamentally different way to move fully into the new way of living we call green.

Yes, it’s important to use phosphate free cleaners and compact florescent light bulbs. But the more important changes are to understand spirituality as the foundation for sustainable living and to realize that our consciousness of the web of life on the planet is intertwined with who we are most deeply. The web of life on planet Earth has linked the life within us with the totality of life around us. Yes, that is awe-inspiring, animating, and deeply meaningful. It is the root of spirituality.

© 2010, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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