Towards genuine abundance
What is “sustainability” and why are some people so afraid of it? Generally, sustainability means using resources so that the human species might survive indefinitely, passing the earth with all its ecosystems on to our descendants in as good shape as we received it.
While this sounds good in an idealistic way, skeptics fear that a stewardship focused on sustainable living will involve forced sacrifice; that we will have to brainwash ourselves into giving up the convenience and comfort that our richly material culture provides us. This fear is not unreasonable, since it is hard to imagine how our current binge of consumption might continue indefinitely into the future, particularly as developing nations rightly take their share of the earth’s resources.
This fear may be based on a misunderstanding, however. There is ample biblical testimony that God wants us to live rich lives. After all, Jesus in the Gospel of John proclaims: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10b). Our task, then, is to decide what kind of abundance we will pursue. Will we chase after an abundance that is false (deceptive, unsustainable), or an abundance that is genuine (enduring, sustainable)?
The Lutheran colleges in the upper Midwest are positioned well to address these questions. A liberal arts education practices students in the skill of identifying and enjoying genuine abundance. Students make friends and learn to enjoy being with each other, helping each other, and supporting each other. They read mind-expanding books and participate in class discussions. They engage in debating, acting, choral singing, orchestral playing, and a large variety of sports. Best of all, students gain lifelong learning, and perhaps lifelong friendships.
So how does a college of the church move further towards sustainability?
All of these activities can be replicated and extended indefinitely. None need involve large expenditures of natural resources nor generate a major carbon footprint — at least on campus.
Of course, these Lutheran colleges are imperfect institutions and students also learn some regrettable lessons in false abundance. On campus, students make use of material resources just like everyone else: products, services, and information. This abundance is false to the extent that it conveys the illusion of being endless and effortless.
For example, students typically receive a limitless flow of electricity, water, heat and cooling, with no direct measure of how much these flows cost, financially and environmentally. They also receive a limitless flow of food and beverages in the dining facilities. They even may receive a limitless flow of entertainment through cable channels and paper in college printers. Of course, students pay for the use of these resources through a comprehensive fee, but that is a poor tool for educating students in the ongoing specific costs and impacts of the resources they use.
Being conscious of abundance
So how does a college of the church move further towards sustainability? Broadly speaking, there are two steps. First, starting with the first day of orientation, the college should break down the fear of forced sacrifice. As students open their eyes to the wealth of opportunities and friendships available on campus, they will gravitate to the low-carbon pleasures of a rich and meaningful life. They will come to see that vocation involves favoring the joys of connectedness over the satisfactions of consumption.
Second, a college of the church should offer concrete incentives to encourage students to move away from false abundance. As fallen and fallible creatures, we do not live by ideals alone, but by incentives that are put in front of our noses. The best limitation in consumption is that which we choose for ourselves, rather than having it forced upon us, and key to encouraging better choices is to provide immediate and concrete feedback. Practically speaking, colleges need to start monitoring and even charging students directly for the flows of water, electricity, media, food, and other resources that they consume.
Consider one example. Generations of college students have drunk from simple water fountains, where water spurts in an endless flow as long as the button is pressed. This year, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, began installing fountains with taps for refilling water bottles — and an electronic counter to indicate how many new disposable plastic bottles of water were avoided by such refilling. As that number climbs by hundreds of bottles per day, students get a sense of how much they are reducing the consumption of plastic.
Of course, avoiding disposable plastic is only half the story; there is no indicator (yet) of what it cost to the environment to deliver that cold, pure water. There remains much room for growth in feeding back to students the impacts of their choices.
The fear of sustainability is real — but so too is the abundance of life promised to us in the Gospel of John. The colleges of the church are well-situated to model sustainability through genuine abundance, and that kind of rich living is available to any of us through our congregations as well. We can redirect our lives to the low-carbon experiences that truly endure and satisfy, all while metering and monitoring ourselves to minimize consumption of the resource-intensive products and services which neither endure nor satisfy.
Stewart W. Herman has taught ethics in the Religion Department at Concordia College (Moorhead) since 1987. During the 1970s he researched and wrote books and articles about environmental and energy issues.