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ELCA World Hunger

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

Solving the last-mile challenge

After 10 car-free years, I am a car owner once again.

Shedding my car meant mastering new ways of moving around the world. The alternatives come naturally now, which is why so many of my posts try to encourage—hector, even—readers to take up their carbon-dependent, gas-guzzling beds and walk, ride a bike, or take the bus.

But for a year now I have suffered from what transportation planners call the “last mile” problem. My wonderful local transit hub can get me around and between towns from Canada to Portland, Oregon. But only a handful of buses can get me the three miles to the Skagit Station—all before 6 pm, and never on Sundays. Bicycling is a great option for good weather and daylight savings time, but from November to April my biking day ends by 5 pm—and snow, ice, showers, or 40-mile-per-hour gusts can keep it from starting at all.

My new challenge is to own a car without lapsing back into blind dependence on it. To stay committed to biking, walking, and taking buses FIRST instead of lazily letting the convenience of my car gradually eclipse the other options. To continue to SEE the options and to start figuring out how to overcome that last-mile—or last-three-mile—problem.

Fortunately, trends are going my way. Google Transit is taking the mystery out of planning a public transit trip. Cities like New York and Mexico City declare some areas car-free on weekends. More than half a million members share almost 8000 cars in car-sharing programs across the U.S. (Find the closest to you here) General Motors itself is a partner in the new RelayRides program in San Francisco, a system through which private car owners profit by sharing (for a fee) their cars with neighbors who have been vetted and screened.

I see my car ownership as temporary, a sort of bridge to the world I have been trying to create by not owning one. Perhaps I’ll persuade more people to take my country bus line so we can extend its hours. Perhaps I’ll organize a small car-sharing group among my country neighbors. I have lots of allies, especially among the young.  A recent New York Times article noted that 46 percent of people 18 to 24 would choose access to the Internet over access to their own car. Only 15 percent of their baby-boom parents felt that way. “The iphone is the Ford Mustang of today,” quipped an automotive analyst.

Even more exciting, car ownership is declining among the young. In 1978, 50 percent of 16-year-old Americans obtained their first driver’s license. In 2008, only 30 percent did. My son was over 18 when he got his first license, and at 24, he still has no car. Those with licenses drive less, said the Times:  21- to 30-year-olds now drive eight percent fewer miles than they did in 1995.

Life without a car takes ingenuity, creativity, and commitment. It also costs a lot less. (Buying, registering, insuring, fixing, and fueling a 14-year-old-car in the last six weeks of the year boosted my 2011 expenses by 11 percent.) And it’s getting easier.

My 2012 resolution is to own a car that stays off the road as much as possible. Here’s where I get back to hectoring. Won’t you join me? Get to know your local bus system. Walk to the store. Set up a carpool. Urge your mayor to declare a popular part of town car-free for an afternoon. Dust off your bike. Keep your car, but drive it less. Broaden your transportation strategy to include some more active choices. Together we can figure out the last-mile problem.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

In search of root causes of hunger

One thing we at ELCA World Hunger try to study and teach others about is the root causes of hunger. I have been keeping up with Jubilee USA’s blog, and have been thinking a lot about one root cause of hunger in particular: debt. According to Jubilee USA, an organization that works for debt cancellation for impoverished countries, “Today international debt has become a new form of slavery. Debt slavery means poor people working harder and harder in a vain effort to keep up with the interest payments on debts owed to rich countries including the US and international financial institutions (IFIs)…”

In order to get a better picture of how debt to rich nations and IFIs affect the lives of those in poverty, I did a little research. Many countries that are in debt have millions of people in poverty. Many of these people did not benefit from the money that was loaned to these countries. Much of the money was used to fund development projects such as dams and coal burning factories which did little to make the lives of the poor better and left the environment damaged. Often times this is due to corruption and unfulfilled promises within the government. While the loans many times did not reach those in poverty, they are the ones forced to “bear the burden of repayment.” Countries who owe money are constantly making payments on the interest from these loans, which draws money away from funding things like health care, education and food security. Kenya provides an example of this. According to Jubilee USA, Kenya’s 2005/2006 budget dedicated 22% of government expenses to their debt. This amount of money was equal to Kenya’s budgets for health, roads, water, agriculture, transportation and finance expenses. Debt Payments slow down social and economic development that could be essential to helping people out of poverty. Debt cancellation is important because it can allow economies to grow to meet people’s needs (University of Iowa Center for International Finance and Development).

After learning more about debt, I became curious about Jubilee USA’s name, and stumbled on the theological basis of debt relief. Leviticus 25 talks about the “Year of Jubilee” occurring every seven years in which all debts are cancelled and all slaves are freed. Verses 36-37 state “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit.”

It is important to keep in mind how international debt affects our neighbors around the world and to do what we can to keep them “living among us.” Poverty is complex, and debt is one of the many factors that influence it. To take action or to learn more about Jubilee USA’s work, visit

-Allie Stehlin

During the Power Outage

Last night a winter storm knocked the power out at my home, and I began to think about things…

  • As I pulled out my wind-up flashlight I began to think about renewable resources. If I can power my flashlight (and keep reading my book) with the simple turn of my wrist, what else can I power that easily?
  • Luckily the outage started in the evening and was fixed by morning, a couple of years ago the area experienced a storm which caused power outages for a week. What if I didn’t have a cold refrigerator to keep food in? How would that change what I ate and how much time I spent getting and making food?
  • The rain poured and the wind howled but the water treatment plants were okay. Sometimes, however, in the really bad storms the water systems get tainted and we either have to boil water or use bottled water for a few days. We often have a supply of clean water in the garage for just such instances. What if we always had to boil water? What if we didn’t have any access to clean water storage?
  • I did enjoy making cinnamon toast on the wood stove in my living room, I felt a little bit like a pioneer. I began to think, however, about my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who cook every meal over the fire and also use this as their only form of heat.

In this winter storm I realized how lucky I am to have a roof, central heating, refrigeration and clean water. It also makes me think more about what I can do for others – like giving regularly, learning about renewable energy, being a good steward of creation’s resources and advocating for important justice issues. God works in mysterious ways – even through power outages.

~ Lana

p.s. For those of you who read last week’s Foodball blog, you’ll be happy to know that the competition raised over 989,000 pounds of food this year!

A district prepares to show their local dance


The following was written by Emily Davila, Assistant Director, Lutheran Office for World Community

Before you enter a village in Papua New Guinea, you have to be invited in. After taking a power boat 3 hours up the coast from Madang, I arrived at the tiny village of Saibor, home to around 200 people. The villagers greeted us singing what sounded like Christian rock on guitars, placed two leis around my neck and escorted me to the entrance of the village where they had created a giant doorway out of palm fronds. They asked me why I had come to the village – the correct response is “to pray with you” – so I said that, and then we prayed together. Then I broke through the palm fronds to the other side. It was kind of like a football team breaking through the paper before the big home game. On the other side men were wearing red paint, grass skirts, and doing a ceremonial dance. They threw some flower buds at me, painted my face, and I was in.
Of course I was asked to make several speeches and offer official greetings from the United States. Not used to pontificating in public, which they are all pros at, I had a hard time finding the words to say… “Greetings from New York City, we have big bridges and tall buildings, but no one welcomes you like you have welcomed me…”
After the speeches, the village presented me with billums – purses they had woven out of twine or yarn that are to be worn with the strap crossing your forehead. Every man, woman and child in PNG carries one of these. The bag is a big part of the culture, and my hunch is they mainly exist so everyone can carry their beetle nut, a narcotic that turns your teeth red, looks like a big green acorn and grows on trees. To get the effect, they chew the nut mixed with mustard stick and powdered lime (as in the chemical). The combination creates a stream of bright red saliva that spews out of the mouth– so watch out for the pools of red spit on the roads. Anyhow, after visiting 3 villages I was presented with nearly a dozen billums, ranging from bright pink woven straw, to knitted mauve with the red and black PNG flag, to a plastic black and white one with sea shells attached with strings. You can tell where someone lives in PNG by the type of billum they carry. A billum can be used to do many things — like strung up to hold a sleeping baby, or wrapped around the front of the body as a shirt.
But having returned to NYC, the city of no welcome, I am thinking about the gesture of peace the Papua New Guineans make by building that palm fence. A country with a long history of colonization, tribal wars and even cannibalism, it’s no wonder they ask the visitor, “why are you here?” Visiting the remote coastal towns, I was impressed by how pristine they were, still practicing their same customs, communal and egalitarian, untouched by globalization. They farm and raise pigs and still trade for a lot of their goods because money is hard to come by. It seems idyllic — until you need to give birth or get malaria. Hospitals and health clinics are long journeys from many coastal and highland villages, and women sometimes end up giving birth on the back of bison as they travel to get help.
Papua New Guinea culture is changing, some of the old traditions are slowly disappearing, but I think alot will stay the same for a long time out of sheer isolation. With no roads, tough terrain and high petrol costs for boats, “development” is just too expensive. For Papua New Guinea, this is both a blessing and a curse.

Emily Davila

The Road Untravelable

This winter has been brutal for the roads in Chicago. Huge temperature swings and plenty of snow and ice are crumbling the concrete. My commute to work has become an obstacle course of potholes. There are two strategies for navigating the course: 1) slow down and drive through the potholes, hoping you’re not causing too much damage to your suspension and tires, or 2) slow down and weave around – in your lane and out of it – to avoid hitting them. In the end, you do both, and so does everyone else. The main results are that it takes longer to get anywhere, and all the swerving makes driving scarier than usual. I’m guessing the mechanics are doing a better business than usual, too.

Winter-ravaged roads are a great illustration of their importance. If you don’t have good roads, life is harder. Poor road conditions mean it’s difficult to receive or send goods. Remote villages the world over experience poverty and hunger, partly due to the roads. When roads are badly rutted, frequently muddy, washed out, or in some other form of disrepair, vehicles trying to pass will have to go slowly and are likely to sustain damage. If you’re a business person trying to deliver goods, you’ll have to raise your prices to compensate for the time, fuel, and maintenance costs. Schedules may be irregular depending on when you can get through and how long it takes. If the goods being delivered are perishable, and if delivery schedules are dependent on road conditions and whether or not a truck breaks down, villagers may face perpetual shortages. And to top it all off, once the goods arrive, villagers may not be able to afford them. The suppliers must raise prices to cover their transportation costs, which may make the items too expensive for the small incomes of remote villagers. If suppliers are unable to sell their goods, they are likely to stop coming altogether.

This road is a two-way street (a little infrastructure humor, there). The transportation challenges are true for the villager trying to sell outside the village, too. The costs required to get goods or people to other markets may raise prices to such a degree that the villager can’t compete. The remote village is cut off from larger markets that can increase incomes, create jobs, and improve standards of living. Poverty and hunger become more common.

All of this about roads, and they are only one aspect of infrastructure! It still amazes me, sometimes, how many factors contribute to poverty and hunger. But if there’s a bright side, it’s that all these factors mean there are lots of ways to approach solutions, too.