The Common Good

Choices Make Changes

Sojomail - August 12, 2010


"We want to pay tribute to each of our colleagues who died, to their commitment to serve the Afghan people. Those who have known them and seen them at work can do nothing but pay the highest tribute to them ... In some news articles, the people on this team have been described as 'saints.' This is not how they saw themselves. They were basically selfless professionals willing to spend their lives and energy in a meaningful way."

- The International Assistance Mission, on the 10 members of their team killed Friday in Afghanistan. (Source: International Assistance Mission)

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Hearts & Minds, by Jennifer Kottler

Choices Make Changes

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[Editor's Note: Jim Wallis is on a well-deserved vacation for the next few weeks. Rev. Jennifer Kottler, director of policy and advocacy at Sojourners, will be writing the SojoMail column in his absence.]

"Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved." -- William Jennings Bryan (1860 - 1925)

I think it’s often easier to let life happen than to consciously experience it. Many of us (far too many of us, perhaps) go through the motions without a lot of thought about how our actions both individually and collectively are creating (and destroying) the world. How we spend our money, how we consume news and information, how we treat each other and the earth -- all of these impact our communities, our families, and ourselves.

Until recently, I never gave going to the grocery store a second thought. Grocery shopping was a necessary evil for me, and once I got there, I just bought what I needed for the best price I could find, and then left -- often thankful that the store had what I needed. But did you know that our food (the growing, processing, packaging, and transportation) is second only to personal automobiles in consumption of fossil fuels? And it is a close second at that. We consume nearly as much fossil fuel through our food as we do in our cars. As someone who rarely drives and takes public transportation or walks as an alternative, this stunned me. It has forced me to confront the ways that I contribute to our over-consumption of energy for the sake of convenience.

I found another little factoid equally disturbing. I don’t know if any of you happened to catch Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN when he was talking about the number and amounts of chemicals that are now being found in infants prior to birth. Children are now being born with better than 200 different chemicals in their systems through the “normal” exposure of pregnant women to the world around us -- food, air, cleaning products, and plastics. These chemicals range from what are thought to be harmless compounds to what are known to be very harmful heavy metals like mercury. And while I have to believe that women who live in cities are more likely to be exposed to a wider variety of substances, none are immune. We know very little about how these chemicals are affecting the health of the next generation.

So I have decided to make some changes -- both to improve my health and to do all that I can to reduce my carbon footprint on the planet. Please know I am very aware that the ability to make these choices is a privilege I have. And know at the same time that I am advocating for policies that will permit more of us to do the same -- particularly folks who live in communities where food choices, especially fresh food choices, are severely limited. But for those of us who can make changes, I would challenge you to think about ways you can make choices that benefit yourself, your family, your community, and the environment.

Change #1: I am going to purchase my food as close to its source as possible. Growing up in a rural community in western Pennsylvania, we were able to purchase (or were given) vegetables that came directly from the farmers who grew them. I grew up with an intimate knowledge of where food came from. The local dairy farmer delivered milk in glass bottles that you returned when empty. Now that I live in the city, I have found I can still get milk delivered from the dairy (which I do with several of my co-workers), and I can purchase eggs and produce at the weekly farmers market in my neighborhood. Others of my friends have purchased Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. While this may mean having to find a good recipe for kohlrabi or kale, it is a great way to support small farmers that are within striking distance of the city, and keep fresh foods more affordable. I was pleased to learn that many farmers markets now accept government-issued supplemental nutritional assistance program cards (food stamps) and WIC vouchers.

Change #2: I am going to purchase food as close to its natural state as possible. This means that the processed, packaged, and trucked food is going to be kept at a minimum. So when I do go to the store it may be for the ingredients to make bread rather than a loaf of bread itself. I’m choosing not only to try to reduce my carbon footprint in regards to processing and packaging, but I’m also working to reduce my intake of preservatives and other chemicals used in the production of processed food. I have decided that one of the first things I am going to do is learn how to make bread. But know that you don’t have to join me in jumping off the deep end in order to reduce your use of processed foods. Even purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables rather than canned or frozen (or better yet -- organically and locally grown produce) can have an impact.

Change #3: I am going to reduce my use of water. I have already stopped purchasing bottled water, and instead I use a drinking water filtration system at home and at the office. But I am as guilty as the next person of not being conscious of how much water I use for showering, washing dishes, and washing clothes. Newer, high-efficiency washers use significantly less water, but shy of purchasing a new machine, I can do small things like ensuring that I don’t do a load of laundry unless I have a full load to do, filling the washer with the least amount of water needed, not running the dishwasher unless it’s full, and not staying in the shower (even though it feels awesome!). Not letting the water run while you brush your teeth also makes a difference. I have to pay for my water consumption (my apartment is metered so I only pay for what I use), so I can monitor my success. But again, just being aware of ways in which clean water is wasted can impact your consumption.

I’ve also made some big choices (living close to work, taking public transportation to go most places, drinking water rather than soft drinks, adjusting the thermostat when I am out of the house) that will help reduce my carbon footprint. But I know there is more that I can do. And I know that many of you are creatively engaging this issue in your families, congregations, and communities. I want to know what you are doing, so I hope you will take the time to comment on our blog.

The bottom line is this. The choices we make really do matter. And collectively, these choices matter a lot. I believe God calls us to live consciously, making deliberate choices and thinking through how the choices we make about the way we live impact the lives of others -- those we can see in our own community and those who live halfway around the world. So I invite you to commit to three changes of your own, because choices can indeed make changes -- in our homes, our communities, and perhaps most importantly, in ourselves.

portrait-jennifer-kottlerRev. Jennifer Kottler is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Sojourners. A long-time advocate for justice, Jennifer has served in advocacy ministry for more than eight years through her work at Protestants for the Common Good (Chicago, IL), the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, and the Chicago Jobs Council.

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