The Episcopal Diocese of California will require its institutions to find alternatives to single-use plastics at church events. (Courtesy photo)

Sustainable living a moral responsibility for faith-based organizations

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Last month, delegates at the annual Episcopal Diocese of California convention in San Francisco showed their support for the oceans and climate. They passed two resolutions requiring the diocese and its institutions and parishes to use alternatives to single-use plastics at church events and purchase carbon offsets for church-related air travel.

The diocese, which represents the San Francisco Bay Area, has a long record of working to protect the vulnerable from environmental degradation, care for Earth’s ecosystems and ensure a healthy climate. Like a growing number of religious and faith-based organizations, members believe they have a moral responsibility to keep the environment livable now and for future generations.

“If there had been climate change in Jesus’ time, he would have been concerned about it too,” Nancy Grove, a member of the Diocese Commission on Creation Care and the author of the carbon offsets resolution, told me. “All those things that Matthew 25 tells you to do, you can do them by addressing climate change.”

But the diocese has taken some ways to protect the environment off the table — at least, for now. Last year, delegates decided not to certify a resolution encouraging parishioners to reduce red meat consumption at church events, even though industrialized animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change and water pollution. The vote was close, but delegates ultimately passed a different measure encouraging sustainable food choices.

The resolution’s failure demonstrates how difficult it is to adopt the sort of widespread dietary changes our planet needs. Vegetarianism and veganism strike a cultural chord that doesn’t resonate as strongly as plastic reduction and other climate change measures. But religion’s power to shape culture (yes, even in San Francisco) puts institutions, such as the Episcopal Diocese of California, in a unique position to move us in a more sustainable direction.

We need to reduce single-use plastics, air travel and meat consumption — they all impact the environment in similar ways. For example, manure and fertilizer running off of meat facilities and pouring into waterways creates massive oxygen-deprived stretches in the ocean. These “dead zones” kill indiscriminately, causing marine life to flee or die.

At the same time, giant patches of floating garbage in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans are also endangering marine life. In March, a young whale in the Philippines was found with nearly 90 pounds of plastic in its stomach. A few months later, marine biologists pulled plastic bags from the stomach of a sperm whale in Italy.

These horrors inspired Carl Diehl, another member of the Diocese Commission on Creation Care, to introduce the resolution requiring alternatives to single-use plastic at church events.

“We are killing our fellow creatures with something we don’t need,” Diehl told me. “The world really survived very well before plastic was introduced.”

Diehl’s right — we don’t need plastics. But the same logic doesn’t apply to meat, which has existed as a cultural fixture since our ancestors hunted mammoths. This is one of the many reasons why people are less likely to change their diets despite the known environmental impacts. Many of us don’t have the same natural aversion to hamburgers and steaks that we do to trash. We attach a value to beef, chicken, pork, and fish we don’t attach to the disposable items we use for mere minutes.

“When you’re talking about your eating choices, you’re talking about habits, economics, culture, religion, and disparities, such as food deserts,” the Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus, the eighth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, told me. “Changing these things are not easy.”

Fortunately, the diocese is in a good position to take on the challenge. Approximately 60 percent of adults in the San Francisco metro area believe religion is very or somewhat important in their lives, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. If religious institutions encourage more sustainable habits, people of faith may be more willing to adopt them too.

The diocese recently released a Carbon Tracker, a web-based platform that helps the public learn how their food choices, energy use, transportation and trash affect carbon dioxide emissions. So far, close to 1,000 households have signed on. The program also allows participants to connect to other people in the community to create a culture of sustainability.

Tools like the Carbon Tracker can increase awareness and help minimize the cultural grip meat has on us. If we all simply reduced the amount of beef, bacon, and chicken we ate, we’d also reduce the power industrial meat producers have on our government and their impact on our planet.

Perhaps it would also encourage delegates at a future Diocese convention to further show their support for oceans and a healthy climate by passing a resolution encouraging less red meat.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com

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