Waste and Consumption

The environmental justices issues around consumption, waste, and resource exploitation/depletion—and other systems involved in supporting humanity’s needs, wants, and desires—have been of concern to Unitarian Universalists for many years.

In 2001, the delegates to General Assembly adopted the Statement of Conscience Responsible Consumption Is Our Moral Imperative, which reads, in part:

Our Unitarian Universalist faith calls upon us to approach the ethic of responsible consumption with a passion for seeking truth, a thirst for making justice, a vision of interdependence, and a willingness to re-examine our individual actions and beliefs. Becoming responsible consumers means putting into action our religious Principles of the inherent worth and dignity of all people and the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part . . . We will work together for legislative changes that will reduce over-consumption, environmental degradation, and the unjust distribution of resources.

This Statement of Conscience represents both environmental justice and economic justice. As we are learning, all the injustices that UUs work so hard to address are inextricably intertwined, e.g., there is no racial justice without economic justice and no environmental justice without racial justice. In this new age of increasing climate disruption, the consumption choices we make—as individuals, organizations and corporations, cities, states, and nations—have profound implications on how well we humans will succeed in adapting to the inevitable changes that face us in an equitable way.

In 2006, the delegates to General Assembly adopted the Statement of Conscience Threat of Global Warming/Climate Change, which states:

Entire cultures, nations, and life forms are at risk of extinction while basic human rights to adequate supplies of food, fresh water, and health as well as sustainable livelihoods for humans are being undermined. To live, we must both consume and dispose. Both our consumption and our disposal burden the interdependent web of existence. To sustain the interdependent web, we must burden it less while maintaining the essentials of our lives . . . Our world is calling us to gather in community and respond from our moral and spiritual wealth; together we can transform our individual and congregational lives into acts of moral witness, discarding our harmful habits for new behaviors and practices that will sustain life on Earth, ever vigilant against injustice.

The statement’s Call to Action begins with “Affirming that we are of this Earth and that humankind has brought about global warming/climate change, we, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, pledge to ground our missions and ministries in reverence for this earth and responsibility to it as we undertake these personal practices, congregational actions, and advocacy goals.” The extensive list of suggested actions includes many related to consumption and waste.

Many congregations, including those working towards or already certified as Green Sanctuaries, have embraced the charges of both of these Statements of Conscience in their sustainability, education, and environmental justice projects as well as their advocacy efforts. Through a new initiative from the UU-UNO Climate Change Task Force, Climate Action Teams are forming in many congregations. So, how are we doing? At the personal, congregational, and community level we seem to be making some progress, but our advocacy efforts have had little impact on slowing the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere.

This module, created for Earth Day 2014, is intended to deepen your understanding of the impact of our consumption, waste, and resource exploitation patterns on climate change and planetary degradation—and what you and your congregation might do help mitigate this rapidly deteriorating situation at home and around the world. Let’s get started!

The Story of Stuff

The Story of Stuff, created by Annie Leonard, an expert in international sustainability and environmental health issues. Since 2007, over 40 million people have viewed it. In a simple but profound way it connects all the dots on how humanity got ourselves into this consumption/pollution mess.

It begins with extraction of resources from the Earth, which are transported to production facilities and turned into products, which are transported to distribution facilities for sale to customers, who transport them to homes, schools, businesses, etc. for consumption and then disposal of all the plastic packaging, wasted food, broken toys, etc., which are transported to the landfill or incinerator, if not recycled. The process is carefully watched and orchestrated by government and corporations at every step of the way.

As you have probably already concluded—and will see in the film—there are a number of problems with this model, but the most egregious is that it is a linear process rather than a closed loop, in which the “waste” created—from the CO2 emissions from all the transporting to the garbage going to the landfill—is lost forever and new resources must be extracted to continue the process. Our challenge is to design more intelligent products, reduce unnecessary consumption, recover/reuse the “waste,” and close the loop. Watch the 20-minute film below and learn more about the Story of Stuff in the sections below. The referenced and annotated script (PDF) may also be useful.

Learn More

  • The Story of Stuff Project website includes the Story of Stuff film (see also introduction page of this module, near the end) as well as other films and podcasts created to supplement and expand on the original concepts presented. Particularly useful are the two most recent films: Story of Change (2012) and Story of Solutions (2013). Founder Annie Leonard talks about the film and the issues in this great conversation on Penn State Public Broadcasting (57 minutes). In 2010, she incorporated all her research in a must-read book, The Story of Stuff: The Impact of Overconsumption on the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health – And How We Can Make It Better.
  • In Fall 2009, Yes! Magazine offered a section on “Teaching With the Story of Stuff” that contains some good links, including separate links for watching the film by each of the seven chapters and a list of Yes! articles to support teaching with The Story of Stuff. Developed in collaboration with Facing the Future, Buy, Use, Toss: A Closer Look at the Things We Buy (PDF 5MB) is an interdisciplinary curriculum for grades 9-12. It would also work well as an intergenerational workshop.
  • The World Wildlife Federation’s Living Planet Report is the world’s leading, science-based analysis on the health of our only planet and the impact of human activity. The 2012 edition of the LPR highlights the tremendous pressure that humanity is putting on our planet. It notes that we are using 50 percent more resources than the Earth can provide. Our natural capital is declining and our Ecological Footprint is increasing. By 2030, even two planets will not be enough.
  • Architects William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of The Upcycle (2013) and Cradle to Cradle (2002), have substantially influenced the way systems, buildings, and products are designed by “banning” the word waste in favor of the word nutrient, both biological and technical. They believe that appropriate design can prevent environmental disaster and drive economic growth. Theirs is a message of hope – “we can do this!” Be inspired by McDonough’s presentation at Stanford University (1+ hour) the day after the publication of The Upcycle. You can see the foundations of the matured concepts in The Upcycle in this still relevant TEDtalk on cradle-to-cradle design. See the booklist page of this module for more about both books.
  • More UUs Choose Simplicity Over Conspicuous Consumption,” by Donald E. Skinner, appeared in the May/June 2001 issue of UU World magazine. It reported on the actions that congregations around the county had taken in response the responsible consumption study/action issue adopted by the delegates at the 1999 General Assembly. They had some great ideas! In 2000, the Commission on Social Witness offered the workshop Consumption as a Moral Imperative: Monitoring Progress, which included this thoughtful presentation by Sarah Davidson.
  • The Center for a New American Dream seeks to cultivate a new American dream – one that emphasizes community, ecological stability, and a celebration of non-material values. Explore the Go Beyond Consumerism section of the website, which tools and support to families, citizens, and activists to counter our consumerist culture and to create new social norms about how to have a high quality of life and a reduced ecological footprint. Watch the short animated video The High Price of Materialism by psychologist Tim Kasser and read an interview with him on consumerism, values, and what really matters.
  • We Have to Consume Less” was the title of Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! interview with Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in England. Recorded during the Warsaw Climate Summit in November 2013, the scientists said that many of the solutions proposed by world leaders to prevent “runaway global warming” would not be enough to address the scale of the crisis. The transcript is on the website or download the PDF. Three more timely interviews are in the sidebar.
  • Address the Excess – A Recipe for Cutting Food Waste is a TEDxManhattan (March 2013) talk by Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. According to a 2012 NRDC report (1.1 MB PDF; also see article), Americans are tossing up to 40 percent of the food supply each year, along with all the resources used to produce food that never gets eaten. Food waste occurs at home, on the farm, and in supermarkets. In the talk, Lehner explores the low-tech, tried-and-true solutions proven to reduce food waste and save money for consumers and businesses alike. A post on the Switchboard blog in late December, This Year’s 12 Greatest Strides Towards Reducing Food Waste, is a hopeful sign.
  • The West Coast Climate & Materials Management Forum – Managing Materials to Address a Changing Climate – offers a wealth of information and action ideas on all phases of the materials journey from production to disposal. Food: Too Good To Waste – keep your food and money out of the trash! – is particularly informative. Don’t miss Your Stuff, Climate Change and Waste (King County, WA).
  • The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) is a leading global network that promotes Zero Waste by providing its members with advice on setting up composting and local recycling programs while it simultaneously lobbies governments around the world to end subsidies for polluting waste incineration and to adopt ambitious policies to reduce all kinds of waste. GAIA’s four current campaigns are making an impact.

Take Action

  • In your congregation’s book club or other group, read Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Niell. UUMFE chose this title for its list of top books to begin a study of sustainability issues and this book certainly delivers. In January 2014, British filmmaker Tom Bliss produced and directed an 18-minute video that summarizes concepts from the book – you can use it to kick off the conversation. Then choose one of the many ideas for change that your congregation can parlay into an environmental justice project in your community.
  • Yes Magazine’s “The Human Cost of Stuff” issue (Fall 2013) features articles and commentary on how to deal with consumption issues, including numerous action-oriented vignettes on how to un-stuff. For your covenant or other small group, read “How To Be More Than a Mindful Consumer” and other articles to prompt a discussion on how to fix your broken relationship with stuff at home, at church, and in your community. Find a partner organization to work with to equitably distribute your unwanted stuff throughout your community.
  • As an introduction to alternatives to the consumer culture, offer the Northwest Earth Institute discussion course Voluntary Simplicity (revised 2011) to your church/community members. This course helps participants examine how modern society can interfere with caring for the planet. Together, you explore how consumption patterns have an impact on you and your relationships, as well as the environment, and find ways to slow down and live simply. You will also discover more time to engage with your community and flex your “citizen-muscles.”
  • Host an intergenerational gathering or offer an RE session on Story of Stuff (see the “Learn More” page for details). Although the film was originally created for adults, millions have kids have seen it and have no problem “getting it.” There has been minor controversy about showing the film to children – read this New York Times article, including the comments, if you have any doubts. Your children are certain to come up with some creative ideas for projects! Follow up by organizing a workshop to help parents cope with the consumer culture and raise healthy kids. The Kids and Commercialism section of the New American Dream website has lots of resources to get you started.
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This is an administrative account for UU Ministry for Earth (UUMFE).