The school where I teach did several project-based learning units this year. We took a central theme and applied it to all the various subjects students were taking. One of the themes was Environmental Responsibility. We looked at several big areas of environmental problems as well as how these problems could be turned around.
I was very surprised by my students' reactions. Unlike me these kids grew up with 'reduce, reuse, recycle' and they were pretty familiar with the Garbage Patch and the ocean dead zones. It was not a new topic so I understood that they were not always spell-bound. What surprised me was their lack of personal action and their fatalism. They willingly wrote essays about how industrial farming methods are bad for animals and increase disease in our food supply while finishing up their fast-food hamburger from lunch. They drew recycling posters and threw their scraps in the trash. It seemed like there was no connection between what they knew and their personal action choices. One day we were discussing an extreme ecological experiment called No Impact where Colin Beaven worked for one year to reduce his negative environmental impact to zero, He figured out how to not create trash, he walked or biked everywhere, he and his family ate local food and even turned off the electricity for part of the year. Eventually, one of my student asked the question, "But did any of that really matter?" This and other comments made me realize that many of them felt that their own personal actions did nothing to solve the Earth's problems. They had decided that our world is doomed and there was nothing they could do about it.
I found this expounded on in a book called Hope's Edge. "...we don't experience ourselves as creating this world; we don't see ourselves as choosers at all. Our planet-in-decline is just happening... What we have is all there is."
My first reaction was to feel sad that our youth could have such a doom and gloom outlook. Then I began to wonder if they were right. Did the bags of paper I dragged out of school to take to the local drop off really matter? Was my paying extra to get local vegetables from the farmer's market really helping carbon emissions and putting a dent in the industrial food system? Did my local action even matter?
Here is my answer - I chose to buy vegetables and even meat from my local farmers and ranchers because I don't want food riddled with antibiotics, pesticides, and herbicides. So, first of all it makes a difference to me and hopefully to my family's health. My money helps support small farmers who are creating a food system that I believe in. Along with other 'shoppers' we allow these farmers to keep doing what they believe in and not quit or convert to industrial methods. I think it makes a difference to them. I like knowing that the meat I eat comes from animals that had a good life. They got to play and frolic and eat the things they were meant to eat. Yes, they ended up on my plate, but they did not live a life of torture and disease first. I think it makes a difference to those animals. So, my food choices may not change the world (although the food movement is growing and seeing an influence), but it is influencing my corner of the world, and I think it does matter.
Although this post has centered around environmental issues, it really touches on my whole worldview. I believe in local action, I believe in people influencing and helping people. I believe in living out what you say you believe. I believe that God works through each one of us to make this world a better place. We are each the little boy in the poem who keeps throwing starfish back into the ocean because, "it makes a difference to that one". Go save some starfish.