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ELCA World Hunger

Underdeveloped or cutting edge?

A few weeks ago I wondered whether the yellow water bucket that we associate with poverty might actually symbolize respect for a limited resource.

Today I’m wondering whether places that lack “conveniences” are actually better off than we are. What begins as convenience ends up as infrastructure, like the one that locks us into using too much water every single day. So many interests are invested in this system that changing it is very, very difficult.

In the yellow bucket world, infrastructure is scarce and innovation is abundant. Greenfield is an emerging term for a place with little infrastructure. Says Wikipedia, “the analogy is to that of construction on greenfield land where there is no need to remodel or demolish an existing structure.”

In mobile technology, the African continent was a greenfield.  With few telephone poles and landlines, African countries quickly adapted cell phone technology, and today lead the world in mobile commerce. In places like Uganda, you can do all kinds of cool things on a phone—transfer cash, check the market price for your fish, text money to your family—without signing up for a pricey two-year contract!

In mobile commerce, African countries have leapfrogged many developed nations.

Leapfrogging is the process through which developing countries can actually develop faster, notes Wikipedia, “by skipping inferior, less efficient, more expensive or more polluting technologies and industries and move directly to more advanced ones… avoid environmentally harmful stages of development and [without needing to] follow the polluting development trajectory of industrialized countries.”

In other words, our “less developed” companions in ministry are poised to leapfrog, from their greenfields, right over us and our well-entrenched, wasteful, polluting ways!

So, who advises whom? Do we go on raising money to “fix problems” in other places, or do we start confessing that we’re stuck in a system that consumes too much of absolutely everything, and open ourselves to learning from—and celebrating—the leapfroggers? I’ve been feeling pretty pleased about the new, high-tech solartube in my roof, designed to brighten a dark hallway with daylight instead of a lightbulb. Looking around for examples for this post, I discovered that a plastic water bottle would have been just as effective, and cheaper. Wow!

Wouldn’t it be nice if, every time we launched a faith-based “development project,” we started by searching for leapfrog technologies to see what we could learn? Instead of raising money for 100 wells in African countries by actually wasting water (dunk tanks, throwing water balloons), could our next campaign give equal time to–or even showcase–the wisdom of companions on how to replace systems and habits that waste water  with something more efficient and respectful?

Yesterday, the New York Times posted a blog post called “What We Can Learn from Third World Healthcare.”  The theme is the same. We spend billions on medical bells and whistles, yet our health metrics are simply terrible. Concludes the blog’s author: “In other words, we have yet to deploy what could prove to be the most powerful weapon in the fight to contain costs and improve the quality of health care: our own humility.”

The world is telling us we’re not so very wise. Instead of being defensive about our way of life, shall we smile and join the leapfrog game?


Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

From simple to sustainable on the homefront

Like typewriter or answering machine, the phrase simple living sounds a little quaint. Have you noticed how many faith-based and secular organizations devoted to scaling back lifestyles have called it quits? And how energy and attention have been gradually shifting from frugality towards creating sustainable lifestyles?

My life has been following this path, too. The Tightwad Gazette and Your Money or Your Life launched me along the journey described in Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal.  Those years of simple living culminated in the great paring down of 2009 described here and here.

Capturing rainwater for gardens is part of a sustainable NW home. The ReStore in Bellingham uses containers from a food processing plant to catch and store 800 gallons of water.

My early simple life unfolded in a city—a complex system with an infrastructure and buildings shaped around assumptions from a hundred years ago. There wasn’t much I could change about my urban environment (or so I thought), so I focused on decluttering my home and calendar; lowering my expenses; seeing what, personally, my son and I could live without; and organizing our lives around people and personal interests rather than mass market dictates.

All that changed when I moved closer to family in the northwest. Surrounded by fields, hills and rivers instead of brick and mortar, I wondered about the systems around me.  Where did my water, electricity, and propane come from? Where did my garbage go? How did my septic system work? What were my farmer neighbors growing, and who ate it? How could I ride a bicycle in the rain?

To create a life that complemented or enhanced those natural systems, I would need to learn a whole new set of skills around gardening, composting, and reducing and generating energy. That’s why this spring my simple life is way, way over budget. I’m rehabbing a 40-year old, single-story family home into a green, energy-efficient dwelling with the tiniest possible footprint. Everything I’ve read about green building is turning into practice as the rehab team tightens the building envelope, increases ventilation, and adds high-efficiency heating, a 50-year roof, low-flow everything, compact fluorescent and LED lighting and low-VOC or recycled paint. All while reusing, recycling or composting as much construction debris as possible.

In Chicago I did the laundry in a corner of the basement under a single 60-watt light bulb. Now I have daily discussions about ambient versus task lighting for a dedicated bathroom/utility room, dual- versus single-flush toilets, and radiant heat versus heat pumps. A basement washing machine under a dim light feels pretty Lutheran and pretty simple. It’s modest, straightforward, and leaves lots of time for loving your neighbor. Sifting through lighting choices feels scandalously self-centered, self-indulgent, and not Lutheran at all! Is this really me???

Decisions, decisions, decisions!

When pesky building specs overwhelm me, I remember: Changing any life habit takes time and attention. Someday, all of us will live in homes that consume few resources and even produce their own power—in the country and the city. We’ll have made our existing homes greener, and green building practices will be standard. But we’re not there yet. Contractors and customers still face a steep learning curve. Dissecting lighting (xenon, LED, solar tubes?), I hope, speeds it up a little.

Eventually, my house will stop being a full-time project and just be my home. Insides its sustainable envelope I can resume my regular simple life. I can get back to being Lutheran and loving neighbors I don’t know. But for the next nine weeks, the carpenters, the plumber, the electrician, the heating contractor, the roofer, and the insulation/air sealing guy are the neighbors I’m called to respect and listen to with patience as we tackle a million details and create a green home.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Food loss vs food waste: which one is our struggle?

Just last week in my local high school’s cafeteria, eager young volunteers stationed themselves with scales in front of garbage cans. Weighing and examining every item about to be thrown away, they came up with a gross tonnage of discards and determined that only 5% of the “garbage” needed to go to the landfill. The other 95% could be recycled or composted.

While some of the compostable items were napkins and paper plates, most of it was food.

Food tossed into the cafeteria garbage can is considered food waste— food wasted at the level of consumption, that we prepare and eat in our homes, stores, and high schools, the ELCA Churchwide Office, our congregations, offices, and countless other  institutions.

Food loss, on the other hand, takes place at the level of production. Failed crops are a good example. So are shortages triggered by hurricanes, typhoons, droughts, war and violence, and diseases like potato blight or wheat rust.

Through ELCA World Hunger, we’re all committed to addressing food loss. But the food waste that takes place in our own kitchens? Invisible, unchallenged, it’s our dirty little secret. Some might defend it as a privilege of our prosperity! Food loss happens everywhere. Food waste happens in high-income regions. Although this chart is a little hard to see, just look at the proportion of red to blue. Blue is food loss. Red is food waste. We North Americans have the biggest red chunk. (To see a larger chart, go to a cool blog called Discard Studies: Exploring Throw-Away Culture, also my source for the food loss/food waste distinction.)

So, fellow hunger advocates. What’s the plan for making our food waste as visible—and as reprehensible—as the world’s food loss?

For including our own shame in campaigns that focus on the world’s shame?

For adding a photo of our excess to the gallery of photos of other people’s lack?

For including our own practices in the hunger equation?

For looking at ourselves?

I can’t wait to hear.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Functional Optimism

The state of the world is discouraging. But I’m a functional optimist. I try to live as if my actions and decisions made a difference. And when change shows up, I like to think I played a role in its birth.

My last post on the disappearance of garbage is a case in point. I’d like to believe that every can and bottle I’ve recycled since my junior high recycling project in 1970 has been like a dripping faucet, slowly and steadily advancing the idea that garbage is silly. That slow, steady drips from millions of like-minded people pushed this notion at all levels of government and civil society. That those drippers worked together on legislation, testified before waste management boards, set up municipal recycling programs or got degrees in product design or lifecycle engineering, the better to create products that use less energy and produce less waste.

I’m pretty excited about the drippers who work for manufacturers. In industry magazines, they are discussing compostable, returnable and reusable containers, and the radical notion of providing no packaging at all. In the retail industry, drippers are discussing In.gredients, a zero-packaging store opening in Austin, Texas, this fall. In.gredients was inspired by Unpackaged, which opened in London in 2006 by a dripper who has been praised for her “system-changing idea.”

That’s what these drippers and their drops are doing: changing a system. Which is what it takes to make lasting change. Individual efforts will always be important, but they must be multiplied to have an impact. Go ahead and light your candle in the darkness—but your light will be greater if you link up with some other candle holders. (I’m mixing metaphors, but water and light are elements that transform!)

Says the press release from In.gredients: “Americans add 570 million pounds of food packaging to their landfills each day, while pre-packaged foods force consumers to buy more than they need, stuffing their bellies and their trash bins: 27 percent of food brought into U.S. kitchens ends up getting tossed out.” Now that’s a system.

If I see that system as powerful and oh-so-distant from little me, I’ll feel overwhelmed. But if I can see zero-waste stores and returnable packages as another response to the steady drips of my 41-year-long recycling career, I can get up and live another system-changing day.

Jesus knew the power of the tiny mustard seed. (Oops! Metaphor # 3.)  In fact, he was counting on our mustard-seed faith, habits and practices, joined with others, to coax system-changing ideas like the kingdom of heaven into existence. For people of faith, life is a system-changing enterprise. Let’s live into it and see what emerges!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity


Planet Earth — megastore or garden?

I have been thinking a lot about the food production and distribution systems in the United States, and was so happy to read Anne’s recent post on our national food culture here.  It’s always comforting to know that others are wrestling with similar issues and ideas — after all, isn’t that one of the reasons we have this blog?

One of the aspects of food production I reflect on is how disconnected we are from the “roots” of our food, and how we can best rebuilt that connection and help those suffering from hunger and poverty.  Both my husband and I come from a long line of small town/suburban backyard gardeners (and some farmers), and I honestly never thought too much about this as being “different”.  When we settled down and bought our first house in a Chicago neighborhood, we were on auto-pilot as we planted a garden and started a compost bin.  We had a tiny yard, but enough room for a few tomato and pepper plants.  Many of our neighbors did too.

As more of our friends also bought first homes and settled in, I began to notice that not everyone planted a garden.  Call me non-observant or naive, but I hadn’t really noticed this before.  Hmmmm.  One of my suburban-raised friends confessed that although she does feed her kids fresh vegetables, she hadn’t grown up eating them and certainly not growing them.  The affordability of purchasing fresh vegetables is a topic for another blog post, but this was not the issue for my friend.

Growing vegetables can be very cost-effective, and doesn’t require vast parcels of land.  One way that domestic hunger can be relieved is through more home gardening — both through donations of fresh produce to food pantries, and through knowledge transfer from experienced gardeners to others — some of whom may be suffering from hunger and poverty.

I recently found this fascinating article “For God So Loved the Dirt . . . by Norman Wirzba in the April 2011 issue of Sojourners Magazine that I wanted to share (you’ll first need to complete the Sojourners online registration process, but it will be worth it).  The author discusses the theology of “God’s garden” as described in various passages in the Bible and how it contrasts with a resource utilization/consumer view of the Earth.  I love the imagery of God as a farmer in overalls, digging in the dirt — does God have dirty fingernails like I sometimes do?

Wirzba’s assertion that local economies enable us to see how our actions may help or harm others is really interesting.  I don’t believe that most people intend to hurt other people, but it’s hard to gauge your impact on someone you never see.  In our global economy, I don’t have to look my farmer in the eye — even if my purchasing decisions might be harming his/her family.  I’m not suggesting that local food is the only “answer”, just that it forces us to really see the other person.

The author concludes with a vision of religious institutions moving away from seeing the Earth as a megastore where you might find a good deal, and instead building the connections between God’s garden and his/her people by transforming parking lots and lawns into gardens.  Although he doesn’t explicitly discuss it, I imagine the author may agree that donating some of that produce to a local food pantry might be nice too.

Looking through the archives, I found that I blogged about this last year here, and that some congregations are already started to dig up their lawns and grow food.  I really like the concept of faith congregations building community around gardening — sharing food, building bridges, and teaching each other.  Are there more congregations doing this since last year?  I hope so.  Could this idea work in your congregation?  Does this article challenge some of your assumptions?  I look forward to your thoughts.

Erin Cummisford

Tool of the day, the month, the year!

Last fall my niece and I used a combination of bicycles, buses, and ferries to visit some friends about 20 miles away. Our multi-modal trip was so much fun that when we finished, Lily said, “I wonder if we could take public transportation all the way down to Sacramento to see grandpa and grandma?”

It was an appealing idea with one big obstacle: exactly how do you figure out all those local transfers? It’s easy in Chicago, where the main transit website links the city and suburban buses, el and commuter trains and can calculate any itinerary within about 40 miles. It’s not as easy where I live now: getting to or from Seattle means three buses, three counties, three transit systems, and three websites. Grrr!

Enter Google Transit, launched by Google “to make public transit information as easy to find as any other geographic information.” Type in your start and end locations and it tells you how to get there without a car!

Yes, yes, yes, and yes!! What an exciting and powerful alternative to our car-based society—a positive way to create more public transit riders, which can’t help but create even more alternatives to driving. Alternatives are the best way out of our current system of overconsumption and a grandiose entitlement. They anchor a competing set of ideals in real practices that we can start to adopt. As a proponent of active transportation, I think Google Transit is a reason to celebrate.

But can it get my niece and me to grandma’s house on public transit? Just for fun I checked. Sensibly, GT told me to take the bus to Skagit Station, enjoy the 815-mile ride on Amtrak, and then switch to the local bus when we step off the train in Sacramento. So I think we will!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Only connect

Throwing my two cents into the David-Erin-Bob/Uncle Billy discussion, I’d like to post these musings:

When we buy a car, we carefully research everything except our basic assumption: that we need one. Is there another way to move around the world that might be less damaging, like keeping the car we have and biking more and taking public transit, or sharing a car with a neighbor, or carpooling, or walking?

Of course, as “consumers” we are rewarded for making our personal buying decisions our most pressing concerns. How about we just stop calling ourselves consumers? Let’s not even be Christian consumers. Let’s be Christian citizens. Christian community members. Anything that helps lift the spell that traps us in “take-make-waste” so we can start discerning needs from wants, asking where our stuff comes from and who or what was harmed in its production, and understanding how our greed is connected to—or may even cause—other people’s need.

This is where charity becomes justice. That old saying about giving a man a fish? Sure, teach a man to fish—but don’t forget to ask who owns the pond. The world is full of competent people who know how to fish and farm but can’t access land or water—or whose land and water has been fouled by a multinational factory farm, mining operation, or Coca-Cola plant whose products are shipped to … Christian consumers.

The due diligence we need to be doing about hunger is about our own system. I say, start asking why. Why do I need this? Why was this product produced so cheaply? What hidden environmental or social costs are being paid by the people who made it? How’s their garden?  Unlike buying a car, the goal of questions like these isn’t to make us feel good about our own purchases. These questions lead us from consumerism to collective advocacy, because when a small why is amplified by other individuals, groups, or law-making bodies, it can change a system.

The bottom line why for Christians is: Why does so much of our “good life” come at the cost of other people’s welfare? Our system blinds us to these consequences. It’s time to ask our way out of this trance, to let the power of why open our eyes and start drawing the lines to world hunger that begin in our own backyards.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Loving the small stuff

Yadda yadda yadda: after dozens of posts on stuff and how to get rid of it, how to move it crosscountry in a UHaul, how to store it and ignore it, and how to live without it, I’ve unpacked it all, in a new home.

Making my coffee in my little white Melita pot, dressing from a closet instead of a suitcase, settling down to books and papers united, finally, at one desk—my stuff surrounds me again. Now I can create the comforting routines I was longing for towards the end of my 17-month sabbatical road trip.

Perhaps rejoicing in my belongings—seeing them as new all over again—will help me avoid hedonic adaptation. In this phenomenon, says the New York Times in this article on what makes us happy, “people quickly become used to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable level of happiness. Over time, that means the buzz from a new purchase is pushed toward the emotional norm.” And that means we stop getting pleasure from that new dress, new house, new car, new whatever. Which makes us go out and buy more new things!

Hedonic adaptation is one reason researchers who study happiness recommend investing in leisure activities and services that build relationships instead of spending money on more stuff. One Illinois expert used his field’s research to buy a house close to hiking trails. The novelty of floor plans and amenities would wear out quickly, he reasoned; the ability to walk four or five days a week would make a longer-lasting contribution to his family’s happiness.

What better reason to get over our foolishly conspicuous consumption and embrace, instead, calculated consumption—buying only what we need and investing everything else in relationships, experiences, learning, giving. If only we could recognize that our material needs were met long ago, and seek new, nonmaterial sources of contentment instead.

Nice idea, isn’t it? And worth contemplating as I put down my backpack and become a householder once more. There are some things I need to buy—a broom, a rug, some weather stripping—but mostly I’m sitting around appreciating what I just unpacked. To quote from Frederic and MaryAnn Brussat’s wonderful book, Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life,

How different we might feel about our world after making a practice of saying hello and thank you to the refrigerator that hums while it keeps our food cool, to the slippers that warm our feet on cold winter nights, and to the pen that expends all its ink so that we can express ourselves…when we cherish our things, they reciprocate; when we ignore them, they can turn toxic.

No more ignoring. I’m back to cherishing, and it’s a relief!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

A Bicycle and a Vegetable Garden

Sunday afternoon I heard a snippet of talk radio in which the host spoke about what he believes is the coming of higher food and oil prices. For those of us who listen to the news or read the paper this topic may come as no surprise. What struck me about the radio snippet was the tone. It was so fearful and induced fear in me as I listened, even for a moment.

I changed the station.

I began to think about the feeling I got from what I heard and my reaction to it. I started to think, “Okay what if oil and food prices rise? How can I think about it in a way that is empowering, that gives hope, and is grounded in love, not fear?”

Here is my over-simplified answer: a bicycle and a vegetable garden.

Is it convenient for me to ride a bicycle to work? Not at all. Is it possible? Absolutely. When I studied abroad in college I rode my bicycle to school almost every day. It took about 20 minutes and it was so fun. Everyone rode their bike, so you always had friends to travel with, plus it was great exercise. I suppose high oil prices could easily pay me back in good health.  (Did you know that some cell phones can even be powered by the energy created from bicycling?)

Now, have I grown my own vegetables lately? Not since the junior high school bean sprout project. Could I grow my own vegetables? Happily. Over the last year I have read about the sprawl of urban gardening. Although I could plant vegetables in my back yard, I am impressed with how many creative places people are gardening these days. Flower pots on their apartment’s balcony, community gardens, rooftop gardens, you name it. If I planted my own pea patch this year, I could save a few bucks by growing my own organic veggies.

Now, I realize that higher food and oil prices affect far more things than just my vegetables and gasoline. It is a complex issue and this is my very simplified response. The point I am trying to make is that I find it heartening to respond to fear with hope. To look at it from a different angle and to consider the gifts that God has given us in Creation. How can caring for the earth; using its resources sustainably, sharing with my friends and treading more lightly by bicycling or walking, actually cause positive change? How can we approach an issue with a solution that is responsible, sensible, and not fearful?

I suggest we take a minute to look at a situation from all perspectives and consider the solutions that are steeped in faith, hope and love.

Stuff and Nonsense?

I love the voices on this blog: Lana eating snow and shopping for a GMO-free meal; David probing our call to social justice; ELCA camp directors talking about the carrots and lettuce their campers are growing, eating, and giving away.

And then there’s me, carrying on about public transportation, old socks and shoes, and how, while we profess our belief in God, we act as if The Market is at the center of our lives.

“Maybe,” Nancy suggested gently the other day, “it’s time to remind blog readers what your topics have to do with World Hunger.”

What a good idea! Even I forget, sometimes, when I get carried away. So, here goes.

Most of my 33 posts since April 2009 focus on stuff: buying and selling stuff, storing stuff, having too much stuff, recycling stuff, giving stuff away, disposing of stuff, and transporting ourselves and our stuff. Recently I’ve looked at our notions about our economy—the role it plays in our lives; the assumptions we make about it; the possibility that the Market, not God, is the deity we really serve.

Figuring out how to reuse or recycle several hundred unmatched socks at Holden Village was my September stuff preoccupation.

My corner of the hunger discussion is our North American lifestyle. It’s about how our overstuffed lives keep us from walking our anti-hunger talk—and sometimes completely contradict the beliefs we profess to hold.

Consider this: Statistics show under our present system, a child born in North America will consume, waste and pollute in his or her lifetime as much as 50 children in developing countries. This good-sized tendril of the root causes of hunger starts in our own backyard.

We Lutherans love to cooperate in starting and supporting water projects in other countries. We rejoice that in Chiapas, Mexico, our support is helping an indigenous community irrigate its fields. Meanwhile, speaking of consuming 50 times more than everybody else, at home we treat our water with little respect. We run our faucets while we brush our teeth, take 10-minute showers, and insist on bright green lawns no matter what the climate. It took three liters of water to make our 1-liter plastic water bottle? 70.5 pounds of water to manufacture (in Asia, probably) a 2-gram, 32-megabyte memory chip and its plastic package? Not our problem!

It’s odd to me that our passion for water in Chiapas doesn’t inspire us to connect the dots between green lawns and the fact that, for example, the United States consumes 95 percent of the Colorado River’s water.  The paltry 1.5 million acre feet of Colorado water we give to Mexico is about what farmers in Sonora used in 1922. They can’t farm; the indigenous living along the Sea of Cortez, where the Colorado once emptied, can’t fish. And how are the farmers down the road from that thirsty computer microchip plant faring? All we know is that we can get a computer for a song at Best Buy, and when it wears out, we can recycle it. We don’t want to know streams, groundwater, and children will be poisoned when an offshore e-waste recycler sends it back to Guiyu, China—increasing the very poverty, hunger and environmental degradation we claim to oppose.

My little blog posts fall under the World Hunger program objective, “to encourage members of this church to practice responsible stewardship of their lives and their financial resources toward the prevention and alleviation of hunger.” To me, responsible stewardship means making sure our left hand knows how the plastic water bottle it plunks  down at the cash register aggravates a situation the World Hunger dollars in our right hand hope to alleviate.

As consumers we are discouraged from connecting the dots between our stuff and its consequences. As Christians, we’re obliged to. Convenience and personal comfort at the expense of others are not gospel values. The opposite is true: the gospel exhorts us always to act with our brothers and sisters in mind.

See? My blogs are not stuff and nonsense, but stuff and challenge. Thank you, Hunger Rumblings. I’m grateful for this space and everyone blogging along with it.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity