First, Rethink

I’m by no means a perfect environmentalist. I’m still driving a vehicle that uses too much gas. I still automatically reach for the light switch even when I don’t absolutely need it. I still love to load up and go for road trips even when I don’t have to. I’m an American, and we Americans love our independence, even if that means driving a big old truck all by ourselves to the post office one mile away instead of walking or riding our bicycle.

But I’m trying my best to become better on all these counts, and to me that’s the main thing all of us should do if we want to be part of the movement to be conservationists and to be better stewards of the land.

One thing that I am really proud of is that I’ve become an avid recycler. The biggest factor in this process has been that a regional recycling center was recently opened at my county seat. Lots of people just don’t have a recycler close by. But if you do, I encourage you to start recycling. It’ll make you feel better.

Our recycling center doesn’t do pick up, so once a week I load all of our cardboard, plastic, glass, and paper up and take it to the recycling center that sits just outside the town of London, Kentucky. London is a small town that would like to think of itself as a big town, and for the most part I’m often disappointed in the town’s lack of attention to the arts and backward attitude about anything that doesn’t involve sports or beauty pageants. I’ve been openly critical of the town’s practices in the past and have taken the heat for my views. A terrible city vs. county attitude exists here, as it does in most small towns across the nation, and it’s a constant thorn for me, an avowed ruralist. But when I go to the recycling center I’m always proud of the inhabitants of my county.

Some people grumbled that there was no sense in putting a major recycling center in a place that is not more populated than ours (our county is one of the fastest growing in Eastern Kentucky, with almost 53,000 people) and where more than 21% live below the poverty line (since elitists always assume that poor people would never be conscientious enough to care about the environment).

But our recycling center is a great example of how people will do the right thing when given a chance. Every time I’m there, cars are lined up to bring in their milk jugs, Mountain Dew boxes and pickle jars. The recycling center stays so busy that the crew can hardly keep up.

People ask me why I bother to recycle. Some of them seem outright offended by the notion of recycling, as if it’s a slap in the face to their way of life. I tell them, simply enough, that I recycle because it’s one of the best ways to be a good steward. They have two responses to this: 1. recycling really doesn’t help the environment and 2. Why should we be stewards of the land, anyway? Both these notion bear examination:

First of all, that whole “recycling doesn’t help the environment” idea is nonsensical. This line of thought is legitimized by a famous and controversial New York Times article published more than 12 years ago called “Recycling is Garbage” . Although author John Tierney’s assertions—which were overwhelmingly based on his opinion, and not facts—were quickly refuted by two noted scholars, Richard A. Denison, Ph. D. and John F. Ruston , the damage had already been done. The anti-recyclers now had the ammunition of a New York Times piece to back them up. I’ll leave it to Denison and Ruston to disprove Tierney’s misguided theories with solid statistics and will instead fall back on the same thing Tierney used: my opinion. And in my opinion, it’s just crazy to think recycling doesn’t work.

And what works even better is reusing, which I always try to do before recycling. Everyone always makes fun of me because at my daughters’ birthday parties, I often reuse the plates. It never fails that I will find several of the decorative paper plates that have been barely used. One has held a few potato chips. Another has just been the holder for the discarded cake candles. When I find these lying about, I wipe them out and put them up for reuse instead of just throwing them away. I don’t see a thing in the world wrong with that, but lots of people in my family have a good laugh out of it, calling me a tree hugger or, more often, a tightwad. I reuse food containers, jars, bubble wrap, newspaper (they make for the best window-cleaning, serve as great wrapping paper, are great packing material when I run out of bubble wrap to reuse) and even manuscript paper that has already been used. All typing paper can be used twice. There’s absolutely no reason to throw it away or even to send it to the recycler unless you’ve used both sides of it. People have now gotten used to getting letters from me that are typed on paper that has already been used on one side. I simply add a P.S. that says something like “Excuse my stationary and ignore the writing on the other side. Just reusing before you recycle it so it can be used as many times as possible.” If anyone is offended by that, then tough.

So there’s just no way that recycling isn’t good for the environment. Yes, it may take some water and energy to recycle, but not as much as it does to create something from scratch. Recent studies have proven that it’s even better for the environment to buy a used fuel efficient vehicle than it is to buy a new hybrid. Although the hybrid will save a lot of gas, it takes many years for it to catch up when you factor in how much energy will be used to create a new hybrid when there is already a perfectly good used and fuel-efficient car that has already been created. That’s another example of recycling. I’ve gone so far as to go on the record with Publisher’s Weekly that I don’t object to used book stores, mainly because re-reading of books saves trees (in fairness, most publishers use paper that come straight from tree farms where trees are grown for the express purpose of providing paper for books, but recycling books still relaxes the burden of pressure on our forests) and also because I love a good buy as much as anybody else and used book stores are my favorite stores of all (Robie and Robie in Berea, Kentucky being the best one, with McKay’s in Knoxville a close second (except that McKay’s employees are sorely lacking in customer service).

The second question (Why should we be stewards of the land, anyway?) is even more interesting and disturbing, not to mention ridiculous and frustrating. This is also the most important thing I’ll say herein. We should be stewards of the land because there’s just no way around the fact that as human beings we should live by the Golden Rule, the rule of reciprocity that shows up in every major religion and value system. I identify as a Christian, although my beliefs wouldn’t jibe with a lot of Christians whose views are seen as the “norm” (Sarah Palin, for example, who I’ve come to truly fear…when you start banning books and killing polar bears…well, I’m just done with you). As a Christian—nay, just as a human being—I feel a responsibility to do unto others as I would have them do unto me. I don’t see how a person can believe that and not also be a steward of the land. How can we abuse the earth and not harm ourselves—and, more importantly, others—in some way? We have a responsibility to be good to one another, and to the earth. That’s all there is to it, and no one will ever change my mind about that. It’s one of my fundamental beliefs, if not the fundamental belief I have that drives everything else.

This is not to say that you can’t be a good person—or a good Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu, or whatever—unless you recycle. It just means that I can’t in good faith not try my best to be a steward for the land, since I believe that God lives in everything. While believing that, I also believe that God is most apparent in trees, and mountains, and children, and birds, and, well, in everything. God is not just some spirit in the sky. He lives in it all. So when I do harm, I lash out against Him.

I don’t mean for this to turn into a religious discussion but I suppose the thing that eats at me more than anything else is that so many people who criticize the way I choose to be a Christian are the same people who claim that their Christianity is one that chooses to believe that global warming is a myth (Palin, again), that there’s no use in recycling or reusing or being a steward of the land because the Rapture is coming any day now anyway. I’ve even had some of these Christians tell me that to suggest we should take care of each other (universal health care) is a socialist idea and that all socialism is Communism. When we say “Communism” we’re usually thinking of the Soviet and Chinese school of Communism, so that’s what I’m referring to here. (An aside: As a child raised in the 80s, when we were all terrified the nuclear bomb would drop any day (the movie The Day After sure didn’t make me sleep any better at night), one of the major insults we could hurl at someone else was to call them a Communist.) But socialism and Communism are two completely different things, with socialism paying much more attention to human rights (and taxes). If Socialism means that we take care of each other, then I’m all for it. Why shouldn’t we? Maybe that’s why we were put here to begin with, to see if we’d succeed in taking care of one another, of if we’d fail miserably and just end up killing one another. With nuclear bombs. Or self-imposed global warming.

My point is that recycling is part of the process of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s about being a true conservative in that you actually want to conserve something, not that you want to be a conservative in the modern definition, which would mean that you want to teach abstinence-only sex ed, deny people equal rights, and put lipstick on pit bulls. Or something.

When I go to the recycling center, I feel like I’m doing something to help. And I love seeing others who are doing something to help, too. All these people silently making their small sacrifices. They take the time and make the effort to recycle. Not because they’re being paid to do so. Not because anyone will appreciate it (as a matter of fact, lots of people will outright accuse them of being—gasp—“liberals,” an insult that carries almost the same weight as being called a “Communist” in the Age of Palin). They do it simply because they believe in the Golden Rule. Because they don’t like to waste. Because they believe in true conservation.

And for the record, people of all classes show up at the recycling center, all of them with the common goal of doing something to help in mind. When my cousin, a self-proclaimed “true Christian” (i.e., one who doesn’t smoke, drink, or curse but judges everyone) tells me how much he’s doing for Jesus, I ask him why he doesn’t recycle for him, then.

I’m still working on becoming a better environmentalist. Slowly, I’m simplifying. I’m not using as much energy as I used to. I’m not using as much gas as I once did. I’m reusing and recycling even more. I’ve even started riding my bicycle to the post office. Most of all, I’m trying to be more aware of how every single thing I do affects others, and the earth. That’s the first step to making a change for the positive, I think, and so if we can all just do that—be conscious—then we’ve made the first, biggest step of all.


Lex said…
It just came to me yesterday that everything I've been worried about since I was ten years old (global warming, deforestation, recycling, etc) is finally starting to worry the masses.
Can you believe that we are still lacking a curbside recycling program in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago? And it doesn't get much more "elitist" than Lincoln Park.
And they call Mayor Daley, green. And although we have hundreds of recycling bins throughout the Columbia College Campus, the trashcans are still overflowing with plastic water bottles.
I will start to pray for the Earth again at night--maybe we all should.
Lex Sonne
MariAdkins said…
Have you been to Half Price Books here in Lexington, Silas? It's located at Hamburg. I practically live there.
Judy Jabber said…
When I grew up, we didn't have a phone or air conditioning. We shared one car among 5 children and two adults. It didn't seem a hardship then, but we've all gotten greedy. We want more, more more when we need to do with less, less, less.
Anonymous said…
I just love the way you look at life; it is total magic. The line you said to your cousin about recycling for Jesus was really funny. It made me giggle. Thanks Silas, and keep on recycling. Best wishes, Amanda.
Frankie said…
Thanks for this, Silas. You touched on the conversations Beth and I have been having lately: about healthcare, the environment, moral bankruptcy/the death of compassion, and the horrors of our political realm (or: how much Sarah Palin enjoys fresh polar bear roasted over a tall stack from the library). It makes me angry when people misrepresent an ideology to cause harm--especially when the world's major religions expect some type of individual sacrifice. Doing something for selfless reasons--just because it's the right thing to do--is one of the most meaningful things that we can do. No matter how small this thing is, it makes a difference for someone or something. In American society, we've been told that we're insignificant (like our votes don't count), that no matter how much we do, it won't make a difference in the face of [insert social problem here], that we just better accept the broken world the way that it is. I refuse to be so jaded about the miracle of our planet, our lives, our experiences. I refuse to embrace such a bleak outlook, and there's no way I'd pass it along to my child. At my company's conference this week, I heard Don Tapscott speak about information he learned during 12 years of research of the next American generation that are just staring to run the country, the 8 to 30 year-olds. First, they're way smarter than us, and their brains literally work better. Also, this group is overwhelmingly socially conscious and would rather volunteer during their working years than earn good money at a job that they doesn't feel makes a difference. His other findings were equally fascinating. His new book Grown Up Digital when it comes out at the end of the month. Fortunately for the people in my neighborhood, recycling is easy. We just throw it all in a blue bin and the take it away. So, we challenge ourselves to live closer to the earth in other ways. We started canning some of our vegetables, to save gas and emissions for our trips to the store, and the footprint of the manufacturing and delivery processes. We supported local farmers this year, but plan to grow our own next year. If canning sounds daunting, one small change that can make a HUGE difference: reusable bags. I know some people prefer to "reuse" grocery bags for lining small trash cans or picking up dog poo. But there's a trade-off: these bags will never biodegrade and they're made mostly of petroleum--think about the number of these bags that get thrown away and then think about gas prices again. We have to recognize that we have an important part in the problem--and in the solution. I've been thinking lately about riding a bike to the store, but I'm not so good at with two wheels. I'm thinking about getting a trike with a big ole basket. Wouldn't that be hilarious?
Take care, Frankie

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