Let me introduce myself. I’m a millennial, and one who’s increasingly concerned about human impact on our planet. I’ll name my nightmares: plastic piling up in oceans and foreign countries, relentless fossil fuel burning that warms the planet, truckload after truckload of Watauga county trash hauled off the mountain. And all of this is driven by a consumer economy that we all live by. All means me too. That’s the big monster in my closet: the fear that the very way I make my life makes life, well, harder to make.
I’ve chosen my images purposefully. Nightmares, monsters in the closet — that’s kids’ stuff. We grow up and learn that such fears are fantasy. Many critics of current environmental activism point this out. The criticism goes like this: impressionable young people are acting on unfounded fears (“There, there, you’ll grow out of it”). There’s another level too: these unfounded fears are being created and co-opted by ulterior motives (“There, there, the schools, or the socialists, or the elites, or the fascists, or your whacko parents or somebody is using you”).
I can’t prove these critics wrong. But they can’t prove themselves right either. No one can prove anything here. Why? Such hard proof belongs to the future. We’ll only know whether the fears were unfounded if the feared things materialize or not. No one escapes this “if,” because no one knows the future. We all must take a “best guess” and act accordingly. Some guess the whole “green” thing — especially alarm over global warming — is a hoax. But they are guessing. Surely that’s not controversial.
Yet, given what you know about me, you’re probably expecting a “controversial” picture of the future. Perhaps a stirring call to embrace a green future; perhaps a fiery tongue-lashing of fossil fuel influence tacked on too. Those have their place, but not here. I wish to offer a memory.
I remember summer weeks spent with my Mamaw while in college. Papaw had died, Mamaw was alone and aging, so I went to stay with her. At the time, I couldn’t put my finger on why I wanted to stay with her. Family affection, yes, but there was something else there too. There was something about what and how we did what we did together that was, well, beautiful.
What did we do together? Well, we went through her ordinary life, a life shaped by the rhythms of agrarian life. What you did each day often depended on the weather. We’d work her garden if it was neither hot nor storming; the same for hanging laundry. We ate whatever was in, supplemented with grocery store wares for sure. A nap, then fetching the newspaper followed lunch; she’d watch the Charlotte news on pretext of hearing the “weatherman.” Evening was porch time spent snapping beans and reading atmospherics for rain. We went nowhere (Mamaw never learned to drive, relying on neighbors, or me, for rides) except church on Sunday and to “town” roughly once a week. Here’s the beauty: She was content.
Here’s more of the beauty: her life was “green” before it was a thing. Consider: no restless driving, no restless consuming; no boredom; no blank stare at a flickering screen. She patiently fed herself. What’s more, she had long learned as a child that life was hard; that life, well made, meant hard work for her. She also knew that making your life now in a way that credibly risked making life much harder in the future was stupid, even if it made you rich, even if it was convenient. Behold, “green” wisdom built into a way of life.
Let me reintroduce myself: I’m 36 years old (a graying millennial) and a local pastor. I can tell you that content people are few and far between in our world — this is ugly. I’ll tell you this ugliness lives in me, too. And, I deeply suspect that past “best guesses” gone wrong account for much of this ugliness. Want proof? Just think how easy it would be to describe Mamaw’s way of life as: old, hard, boring, uneducated; as “not a real job,” as “for someone else.” We guessed, in other words, that Mamaw’s life and its lessons — one’s characteristic of rural people in her generation — were outdated. We guessed that an untethered, industrial-turned-consumer economy would deliver contentment. We guessed that life really would be easy — at least for us — what with “technology and all.” We continue to guess that more of this kind of life will be the best way to solve whatever problems it creates.
Yet, remember, however outdated Mamaw’s life is, we did describe it as “for someone else” and also “green.” This matters a lot because it shows how we can’t honestly get beyond this way of life. Someone has to farm and feed and care; to practice the very unsexy virtues of restraint, moderation, and mercy, especially in the way we make our lives. Someone has to accept the fact that life is hard, do the work and not make others bear this hardness disproportionately. Finally, someone has to do all of this and not resent it. We know we need Mamaws in the world. The problem is, most of us don’t want to be them; most of us don’t know how to be them anymore. Behold, more monsters.
As my memory shows, I’m convinced “being green” is as much about remembering the past as it is imagining the future. Specifically, it’s about remembering how “green” used to be more integrated into the way people lived and lived intelligently, with contentment. It’s about remembering how “green” was more a way of life than a lifestyle. Further, it’s about hoping, humbly, for reintegrating “green” ways into our lives by practicing virtues of patience, modesty, gratitude and restraint. Also, it means saying no to our culture wars. Here’s an example. If you drive a Tesla, don’t look down your nose. Give thanks for the pickup truck the handyman drives to come fix your roof. If you’re the handyman, drive your truck and do your work thankful there’s someone driving a car that’s not burning gasoline.
But that’s not all. “Being green” I believe has a deeper context, one I think my Mamaw knew more than I do. She knew that earthly life was a gift from God. She knew, therefore, that this planet’s not ours; it’s God’s gift to us. Christians have a lot of remembering to do here. Remember, only God is infinite. And since Earth isn’t God, this means Earth is a finite gift. Earth and all that is therein, therefore, has limits and needs which human creatures are called to accept and honor for the sake of our own contentment. And yet, we accept and honor these limits out of love for God and neighbor, not out of survival. Death, remember, has lost its sting. What a strange world where love of God, neighbor and contentment dwell together.
Maybe you can nod your head to this. Maybe it even sounds pretty. So, what would sound ugly? Well, rejecting one of God’s gifts; rejecting it by disregarding its limits. Think trespass. That’s not just ugly, that’s monstrous — the stuff of real nightmares.