The Greening of U.S. American Religion

July 22, 2007

This article in the Washington Post is about the increasing connection between faith and the environment.  They mention the Interfaith Power and Light organization, which I know our church has had a relationship with.  The article also talks about a vegetarian Jewish woman who organized a purchase of 450 pounds of meat that is local, grass-fed, organic and strictly kosher for her synagogue. Interesting article.


Shocking News From an Upcoming U.N. Report on Global Warming

April 5, 2007

According to the report, “Climate change is already having major impacts on the natural world.”

You can read the BBC article here.

I am glad about this “growing certainty” and don’t mean to be too cynical. It is just that lots of environmentalists and scientists were already “certain” a while back and if anyone would have paid any attention to them, we wouldn’t be in the huge pickle we are.  The evidence of global warming and its impacts (and potential impacts) have been clear for a long time. I just find it a bit irritating that it is like some sort of great revelation that the world is getting hotter and that this is actually impacting people’s lives.  Gosh. Who would have thought such a thing?  But, in spite of my sarcasm, I do recognize that it is a huge challenge to convince people and governments and businesses to do things differently until people are actually suffering from it.  It is just sort of too bad that things work that way.  Lets hope that people get psyched up enough about global warming and such to do a lot more than cover stories, documentaries, and reports………


The Simple Living Guide – Book Review

March 19, 2007

So I cover simple living and increased simplicity a lot here, and I wanted to suggest one of my favorite books for getting inspired to live more simply and save money. It is The Simple Living Guide by Janet Luhrs.  I wish so much that there was a newer version of it – it came out in 1997 so it is a little dated in some ways.  Still – I have, for a very long time, wanted to save more money and live a life that is less driven by getting things done and one that is more focused on living life right now and enjoying those things that are important to me. I think a lot of time the right book comes along at the right time in our lives, and for me, this book was it. It provides lots of ideas – some about being just a little more simple and some that are about pretty drastic changes. This is not likely a book that people who want to live very radically simple lives would find valuable. This is for folks who still want electricity, maybe a car, some nice “things,” and so on. I found it very readable with lots of ideas, and also a very exciting philosophy – driving home the idea that we lose sight of the point of life – that for most people, it doesn’t make sense to work a lot, to get lots of money, to get a bigger house and lots of stuff. Rather, we can be more content (and have a lighter environmental impact) by working only as much as we need to in order to meet the needs that are basic and the needs that are most important to us. Thus, if having a nice car is important, save for that and cut down on expensive clothes. It encourages you to thin of life in terms of tradeoffs. If I work 50 hours a week, I can have a big house, but much less time to live in it or be with family. Is this worth it. It also helps to counter conventional wisdom about the kind of money it takes to live a “decent” life. This was big for me.  I loved the idea that it is not unreasonable to consider living on $40,000 with two children (okay, not in Boston) and not feel deprived. I know that lots of people live on much less than that, but the idea here was that you can live on much less than you think you can and not feel poor or deprived. It challenges assumptions and offers new way to think about things. The book did not come across as preachy to me. I think you can take from it what is helpful in your life – it is like a sourcebook or reference book. Take what works for you and leave the rest.

I won’t review here, but I also really liked Simplify Your Life.


Food Food Food – Questions About Where to Buy and How and All Sorts of Complex Difficult Questions

March 6, 2007

Just thought I would point out two cool posts on food – one at Peacebang’s blog Poverty and Sustainability and one at the Boy in the Bands blog The Healthy, Sustainable Diet. I think both posts help highlight the complexity of the pickle we are in with food and issues of sustainablity. I would like to write my own post, but now is not the time. Enough food blogging for me in the past few weeks. Glad folks are thinking about these complex, difficult questions.


How much is too much? Compassion, giving, love, sacrifice, and living a “normal” life.

February 27, 2007

I am sure many folks out there struggle with how much of oneself is appropriate to give to all the competing demands on our time, energy, resources, love, compassion, etc. and this is one of my ongoing reflections on this topic. Apologies if I repeat things I’ve said before, but it is an ongoing issue I wrestle with and imagine my blog readers wrestle with too.

This manifests in a very tangible way in our household in that one room of our four room apartment has been occupied by a cat or cats on and off since we have lived here (more on than off). Once we adopt out a current bunch of foster cats or kittens we always tell ourselves that we and our permanent cats (who do not like visitors or having a closed room) that we’ll take a break. But there are always more desperate situations, often life and death, where life means we take the kitties and death means don’t take the kitties. So we usually take them.

And, while I know there are lots of people that support our work and encourage us (which means a lot to us!) there are also those looks we get – “Oh, you are those kind of cat people.” We’ve heard “cat freaks,” and comments about not being able to set boundaries. And for me, this represents a big struggle – within myself and within our culture: how much “good” work can you do before people start to think you are dysfunctional? Or before you actually are dysfunctional in a literal sense – not functioning well. I think that this is a legitimate question, especially for ministers and others in so-called helping professions to ask.

That said, I feel that, in our culture and in our denomination even, there is a sense that we need to have some basic comforts of life and if we don’t allow those to ourselves, then perhaps we are being dysfunctional or lacking boundaries. The question is what are those basic comforts or necesities that people need in order to still function as competent helping people? Does it mean we need one day off a week? Does it mean we need an extra room in our apartment or house – a decent amount of space for all our stuff and to have a quiet space away from the others in our household? Does it mean we should be able to take one vacation a year? I think a lot of folks would agree that these are important things to have ways to stay healthy and fresh – ways to avoid burnout. In some sense, I would even agree that these are good ways to avoid burnout (you can see I’m torn here). But I wonder if we have become too convinced by our culture and by ourselves that these are things that people need to do the hard work of love and justice. Along with a million other things I could think of – nicer cars, nicer houses, nicer clothes, special treats at the spa, a food processor (something I recently justified buying). I include myself in this critique/reflection, but sometimes I want to tell us to just toughen up. I KNOW self-care is important – but I think there are many ways to care for one’s self, and people in many developing countries or in the poorest parts of our country manage keep on going without the extra stuff that we sometimes tell ourselves we need. I think of one of the families I know in Nicaragua – the mom is a school principal, the dad a professor and they both work literally 6am until 9pm six days a week, and usually work some on Sundays too. The mom does all sorts of helping work with the children at the school and the families, and has none of the things that we would consider needed “self-care” things. No vacation. No extra space in the small house with four children. No new clothes, spa visits, no days off, no time for hobbies. And she is not a wreck. She just has to get her stuff done and do it. It isn’t that fun, but she and her family make the best of it and still find joy in life. And with all the needs out there, I just wonder how much flexibility our schedules and our lives should have for those “fun” things while the world is in such dire need.

This is has been inspired by, well, a lot of things throughout my life, but also by my ongoing struggle with how to respond to the suffering I see in the world and how to respond to people who seem to me to be overly hopeful. I feel like far too often liberals especially like to be oh-so-hopeful and la la la about how things will be okay in the end and “oh aren’t we making great progress.” And frankly, we are not making such great progress. On just about anything. Poverty. Global warming. Loving all sentient beings. Children’s rights issues. Women’s rights issue. YES, I know that some progress is being made. And we can’t be all negative about everything or it will discourage people, but the progress that is being made needs to be put into perspective. It is, at best, mitigating harm – it is usually decreasing the rate of increase – not decreasing things overall (emissions, abuse, death, etc.).* And I just find it so frustrating when people (including myself!) are talking about needing this or that in terms of caring for themselves while people are just dying all over the place, greenhouse gas emissions are going up, meat consumption is going up, AIDS rates are going up (in some places), women are being raped, children are being neglected, etc. I think since we are not in the thick of the problems (at least many of us are not) we are able to have rather indulgent ideas about self-care and the sorts of comforts we need in our lives to be good-to-go.

I can just very well intentioned people I know saying, “Oh, there Elizabeth goes again being all worried about the suffering in the world. She is such a trooper” or “she has such a good heart”. I know this is meant in the kindest way, but I hate how people think that caring about dying people and sick people and suffering is somehow a personality trait or occupational calling – like it isn’t something that everyone should be fretting about and preoccupied with. Oh, yes, she cares about suffering, he wants to be a baseball player, she wants to be a computer programmer, she tends to be very interested in insects, while he tends to be interested in sad things like AIDS and global warming. When we think about compassion and concern for the well-being of the world as something that some people have and others don’t need to have or shouldn’t have or “just” don’t have, it is a huge problem. But I think that is another post.

Anyway, I don’t have answers. I know that there are a lot of tensions in this post – that it IS important not to get burned out or dysfunctional. That progress is being made on some fronts. I don’t mean this in either/or terms, but rather want to questions and reflect on the ways we understand progress and hopefulness, and self-care and dysfunctionality.

*I starred this sentence It is, at best, mitigating harm – it is usually decreasing the rate of increase – not decreasing things overall (emissions, abuse, death, etc.) because I think it is especially important to think about the progress we make relative to our ability to make progress. An easy example is to think about how even though life expectancies overall have gone up worldwide (in most areas), relative to how high they could be if there was proper medical care for all people, they are quite low. Or, say, the number of animals being put to sleep in the U.S. has decreased in the last ten years – but, given how easy and relatively cheap it is to have animals spayed or neutered, the level is still quite high. My point is to consider relative and absolute progress and not get too proud of ourselves for the absolute progress, while relative progress still leaves a lot to be desired.


Can Polyester Save the World?

February 21, 2007

No, this is not an attempt to become Beauty Tips for Ministers II. I’m filing an update on my New Year’s Resolution not to buy clothes for a year. And I am on day sixty-something of this, having bought my last piece of clothing December 21. I was thrilled and renewed in my determination when I read this article at the New York Times – Can Polyester Save the World?

The article writes about the new trend of “fast fashion” where clothes are so cheap, they can be bought in larger quantities and just discarded when they go out of style or start to show signs of wear. Three of the stores named in the article are were three of my favorite places to buy clothes – H&M, Old Navy, and Target. Yikes. The problem is, of course, is that buying more, cheap clothes is not so good for the environment when multiplied by millions of people doing it. As the article points out

…clothes — and fast clothes in particular — are a large and worsening source of the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, because of how they are both produced and cared for, concludes a new report from researchers at Cambridge University titled “Well Dressed?”

And all of this helps me remember why I am not buying clothes for a year.  First, because I don’t need to.  I’ve amassed a collection that I need to learn how to work with and not get clothes just because it is fun. Which brings me to point number two is that I bought clothes just for fun, and I really craved them.  More made me want more. I didn’t like that. And three, this is an attempt to save money, although I realize that I really didn’t spend that much on them.  So while it saves some, it is mostly turning out to be a good exercise in discipline and anti-consumerism. It reminds me a lot of my transition to vegetarianism – it got easier with time, and each time I rejected meat I felt sort of accomplished and more content with my decision.  And much faster than with vegetarianism, the “I really might not stick to this” type of temptation has faded.

So that is the update.  No clothes so far with about ten months to go. It feels good.


UU World Article on Ethical Eating: A Disappointment

February 19, 2007

The cover story for this month’s UU World is titled “Eating Ethically.” As someone for whom eating ethically and compassionately is important, I was excited about the article. While I applaud the UU World and the author Amy Hassinger for taking on this issue, I was very disappointed by the tone of the article and Hassinger’s conclusions.

To summarize, Hassinger begins by noting that she, like many, has tended to like to buy the cheapest food, not the most ethically or sustainably grown food. But she says that this is changing and she has begun to reflect on the way her food choices impact the environment. She eloquently notes that “[Eating] may be the most powerful way we Unitarian Universalists have of experiencing our Seventh Principle, of participating in the ‘interdependent web of all existence.'”

She goes on to outline the “disaster of industrial agriculture,” and, in her section on “the seventh principle response,” she encourages us to consider our food choices and how they are related to the way that we live out our seventh principle, respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. She writes,

Eating, of course, is an essential element of our everyday experience. If we can approach our daily meals with a sense of reverence, if we can recall each time we slip a forkful of food into our mouths the many miracles it took to cultivate, harvest, and prepare that bite, we will be moving toward truly living this radical principle.

She discusses steps that we can take toward eating more sustainably – both on an individual level, and at a congregational level. And it is as this point that the article becomes problematic. While Hassinger mentions that becoming vegan seems like the best response to ethical eating, she dismisses this option by noting that “I admit that going vegan feels extreme to me: I have a hard time imagining a happy existence without the pleasure of a good cheese.” To her credit, she spends one paragraph touching on the option of vegetarianism and veganism as responses to the question of ethical eating:

Inevitably, thinking about ethical eating means thinking about the animals we eat. The Rev. Gary Kowalski, minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington…believes that “the greatest and most effective thing we can do to befriend our own bodies and befriend the environment and other living creatures is to eliminate meat from our dinner table.” In my conversation with him, Kowalski ran down a list of highly persuasive reasons to take this step. He told me that eating a 16-ounce steak is equivalent to driving about 25 miles in your car. Each new vegetarian annually saves three acres of tropical trees. It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat and 25,000 gallons to produce a pound of beef. Clearly, the choice to become a vegetarian—or, even better, a vegan—is an excellent way to diminish your ecological impact.

But rather than noting that she has decided to reduce the amount of meat or animal products in her diet, or encourage her readers to do so and explain how others have managed to find happiness without cheese, she goes on to present buying “sustainably raised” meat as a response to the challenges of “eating ethically.”

My first concern is the off-handedness with which she dismisses vegansim (“extreme”) and even vegetarianism. She notes simply that “My family and I are meat eaters—my husband is allergic to so many foods that meat is one of the few things that he can eat.” And, while I understand that her husband’s allergy to vegtables is a unique case and perhaps requires him to eat animals and animal “products” to survive, I am disappointed that this exception appears to form the basis for her guidance on ethical eating.

Vegetarianism is becoming more mainstream, and veganism is becoming increasingly more pleasant due to the proliferation of lots of products that expand one’s options. Veganism and vegetarianism should not be wild ideas to call Unitarian Universalists to. They should, at the very least, be the focus of an article on ethical eating – not marginal possibilities, as they are in Hassinger’s article.

Let me be clear: I understand that everyone will not become vegan or vegetarian – that we all pick our battles, our areas to make a difference. I have made the decision to do all that I can to reduce my consumption of animals and animal-based products such as milk and eggs. Yet, I drive too much and I fly too much for various reasons. I would hate for someone who rides his or her bike everywhere to judge me for how I transport myself. I know that my flying to visit my friend in DC is much less ethical than taking the train. Driving to the store is problematic when I could walk. I need to work on this, among lots of other things. But, and this is the key point, I am not writing articles on ethical transportation. And this is the problem I find with Hassinger’s article. If she and her family have made the decision to eat meat, that is certainly their decision to make. But, the problem is then writing an article about ethical eating explaining how people can buy “sustainable” meat and then every Unitarian Universalist household in the country getting a vision of Ethical Eating in their mailbox via the UU World that involves consumption of animal products.

I need people to encourage me to get tough, and make the hard decision to radically change my transportation habits. Because this is what our world needs. We need people be making radical decisions about sustainablity and love. Love for our planet, for the future of the world, and love for sentient beings that are able to suffer just like our cat or dog. I want to read an article in the UU World telling me how unethical it is for me to drive my car in a city with public transportation. I want a faith that says, “Hey. Get tough. Small adjustments are not going to cut it in these times.”

Likewise, we need people to encourage us to make radical decisions when it comes to the food we eat. People transition to veganism and vegetarianism all the time. It might start with meat reduction or cheese reduction. It takes time to adjust. It takes will. But the point is that it is do-able. And, if it is do-able, I want to be called to that.

There is more I want to comment on as it relates to the article, but I don’t want to overdo it here. I will write a follow-up post with some information about how serious the situation of our planet is and why I think that it takes hard, difficult decisions to respond ethically to the situation, and I also have some additional thoughts on living a compassionate life and if and how that can involve eating animals or animal products when it is not necessary for our survival.

Much peace,

Elizabeth


Potential UFETA Cookbook

February 17, 2007

I set this up as a place for UFETA folks to post recipes for a potential UFETA cookbook. Please post your recipe with ingredients, directions, serving size (serves X people), name, and congregation in the comments. Of course, this is also open to other UUs who have great vegetarian or vegan recipes who want to contribute to a potential UFETA cookbook. Make sure it is a recipie you have tried and you know actually works and tastes good. If you have a special story to go with the recipe (it was your grandma’s or it is a favorite at church potlucks) please feel free to include. You can also email recipes to elizabeth199@gmail.com, although I thought it would be nice to have them all together here online too. Once we get enough recipes together, we can either put it online at the UFETA website or make it into a booklet and sell it (or give it out as outreach). If you have special vegan or vegetarian tips that you want to share, include those too and we can maybe find a way to incorporate them into a cookbook eventually. Thanks!


Thinking Outloud About My Thanksgiving Dinner

October 19, 2006

My sister and I have been planning our Thanksgiving dinner since we and our partners are the four vegetarian/vegan people in the family so we are having ourselves a lovely UnTurkey, and all sorts of delicious sides like stuffed butternut squash (stuffed with lentils cooked in red wine topped with brown sugar), mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and some other fancy stuff that my sister is making since she is a very fancy and talented cook. I thought of this because I was just in the kitchen doing a trial run of my stuffed butternut squash (which, by the way, members of FUUSM, will be featured at the Chalice Thursday dinner on November 16). As I was mixing my lentils with the squash, and getting so excited about the yummy food (food is one of my greatest pleasures in life) I was thinking, “Oh, those turkey eaters at Thanksgiving will be so jealous of all our good food that is just as good as theirs but much less harmful to the environment.” And then of course I stopped and thought, “Oh, no they won’t be jealous at all,” because food and where it comes from isn’t a huge concern for them. They like turkey, chicken, and such and like me, before I had my series of ah-ha moments that lead to where I am today, they don’t think much about eating animals or products that come from animals. I mean, except for my sister and I always eating differently at family gatherings, what would lead them to think about that? I notice so much how little connection there is between animals walking around and something on our plates to eat. And I’m not judgment of that, as if meat-eating is the moral litmus test for good people or something. But as someone who is aware of the difference that diet could make environmentally and in terms of the immense suffering an animal-based diet causes, I am at such a loss of how to share the issue with people – I mean, to most people, compassion for living beings is important. I really don’t know anyone that would say that they like to harm animals or cause them suffering. And even the most conservative of my family would like to continue to have an inhabitable planet for their grandkids. And I KNOW it seems like a huge leap to reduce animal products and meat, but it becomes such habit after a few months… and it would make such a difference. I just have this horrible sense that rather than lovingly sharing information and ideas, the animal rights movement has somehow not done a great job of making vegetarianism or veganism or, geesh, even compassion for animals, one thing among many we can do to save the world and make it a better place, but it has managed to pit “us” against “them” in a way that makes people feel awkward and defensive. Rather than a complex topic dealing with environment, habits, histories, compassion, etc. it has become ONE ISSUE – much like the abortion issues. You are either FOR or AGAINST. I don’t think this is solely the result of animal rights activists not doing a good job at framing the issue – I mean, food goes very deep and is very tied to traditions and it is sensitive because unless one is vegetarian because one doesn’t actually like meat and other animal products, it does sort of imply that one thinks it is the better way to live. But why don’t people get defensive when someone drives around a Prius? People don’t immediately start feeling attacked in thier non-hybrid car? But people do tend to immediately feel defensive about someone who is vegetarian. My thoughts are rambling here, but I guess what I am lamenting is that it is such a sensitive issue and that, for instance, W. an I cannot comfortably share the role that increased connectedness with animal beings has enriched our spiritual journey – sharing this is automatically interpreted as “AND YOU SHOULDN’T BE EATING STEAK” OR the other extreme it is completely not heard and has no impact at all. I haven’t written a lot about my vegetarianism on here for all the reasons I just talked about – fear of being perceived as pushy, concern as to how to go about it best, etc. But it is a very central part of my life and spiritual journey, and I see my love toward non-human animals as part of my ministry and as a natural extension of my compassion to humans. Our cats remind us every day that non-human animals have feelings, are amazingly kind supportive creatures that can give and receive love. And I guess the way I see my vegetarianism is that there is such a lack of love in this world – a lack of clean water, clean air, of general good energy – I just find the suffering experienced by so many on this earth almost paralyzing and overwhelming – suffering for whole lives, day in and day out, struggling just to survive – I see my vegetarianism as one little thing I can do to make sure that there is less suffering, a little more clean water, a little more clean air, a little less bad energy. And I don’t argue that everyone must do this, but rather I would just like to find better ways to invite people to consider this as one path toward doing the work of love and justice and care that we are always struggling to do more of. After you get used to it, it is such a nice thing to know that with each yummy meal of, for instance, stuffed butternut squash, you are doing something good – causing less harm.
Less harm. Less harm. Less harm…. so says the poem by Ellen Bass Pray for Peace. My little chant.
Now for the squash. E


I could keep living generally the way I wanted.

October 8, 2006

This, my friends, is why we are probably just not going to have a planet that is inhabitable by 6 billion humans for many more generations. Perhaps middle class Americans don’t really care much since the people who die or suffer greatly will probably be either from so-called developing countries, or will be poor or minority, like those folks down in New Orleans and surrounding areas.

So, the following quote: “Ambitious as it sounded, it was, amazingly, not excessive. I could keep living generally the way I wanted,” comes from “The Energy Diet,” an article in The New York Times written by Andrew Postman. He writes about how he cut down on his CO2 usage. Which is nice. Truly. But the point is of the article is that it can be EASY, and you can keep your cool flat screen TV and light bulbs that you like. You, TOO, can cut your emissions with very little effort and – bada-bang, bada-boom – you’ve done your part, by golly.

The thing is that easy stuff will not cut it. I don’t want to discourage small changes, because all changes help to slow down the deaths of millions of people. SLOW DOWN. Get it? It is still happening and will just get worse unless we start calling for RADICAL CHANGE very very soon – like yesterday. There will be more tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and destruction of the environment that results in D-E-A-T-H. I’m not trying to be nasty, but I feel like there is the sense like, “Oh, gosh. We’ll lose some of the rainforest. Or a glacier. They are really so lovely. That’s too bad.” But see, when glaciers melt, that raises the ocean levels and FLOODS places where people are living. This is not about the lovely oceans and beautiful forests. We are dealing with many many human lives. Not in the future, but NOW. People are dying NOW because of pollution, weather, etc. caused by our un-care of the environment. I just find it so frustrating that people are so chill about the whole thing. In many ways, it isn’t their fault. Mr. Gore (and so many others who have had the potential to call for radical change) failed to call for what is REALLY needed. At the risk of offending people, or asking too much, he settled. Maybe this is part of a grand strategy and soon part II will come out that will point out that by the time everyone figures out how to use new, energy efficient light bulbs it will be too late… but I’m not holding my breath.

I know this is an usually sarcastic post. But I just get so frustrated with the articles like “The Energy Diet” that somehow portray that if we all just do a little, it will all be okay. The thing is, that is just wrong. We all need to do A LOT. I am including myself in this. I am not an environmental diva, okay? I need to do more. But at least I’m not patting myself on the back for that which I do DO, and thinking that it will really save the planet. Someone needs to build on Al Gore’s very nice first step and somehow convey the seriousness of the issue. Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if political leaders could do that? Like the president? Or, governors or something? Instead, they leave that up to “those nutty environmentalists” who are just trying to scare everyone into supporting their special interest hippie tree hugging stuff.

p.s. Apologies for fewer bloggings these days. School has begun. Church has reactivated after the summer down time. Ph.D. applications are coming due. But I promise more is to come in the future, including statistics and sources so you realize all my huffing and puffing is not just hot air rantings. One good source that I have found is The World Watch Institute. And, perhaps read the report The Death of Environmentalism. Very helpful in realizing the ways that the environmentalism movement has done a bad job so far, despite great intentions.