Issue: February 2015

February 2015 - Message: Brian Webb

Brian Webb

Where is “away?” That’s exactly what we wanted to find out when the Houghton College Eco Reps planned Waste Awareness Week from December 1 – 5. The Houghton Eco Reps are a group of student volunteers working to care for God’s creation by planning sustainability initiatives on campus. For one week 15 students carried their trash around in large orange bags to bring awareness to the idea that trash doesn’t just “go away” when we toss it out. The week’s plans were intended to culminate in a pilgrimage to the county landfill to personally drop our stuff in a large pile that will slowly decompose over thousands of years. Unfortunately the landfill tour had to be canceled due to reasons beyond our control, but the point was made—we made visual that which usually exits our mind the second it leaves our hand on it’s journey to the trash can. Interestingly, the students who weighed their waste at the end of the week found 75% - 90% of it to be recyclable.

The new solar array, which will be operational by the end of this spring semester, accomplishes the same purpose. In addition to reducing our carbon pollution and saving an estimated $119,000 in the first year alone, this installation makes visible that which we often take for granted—electricity. Nearly every aspect of our lives revolves around electricity, though we often remain woefully ignorant of where it comes from and the impact that power production has on both people and the natural world.

Nationally, 2/3 of all electricity is produced from fossil fuels—primarily coal and natural gas. While fossil fuels remain unquestionably convenient they come with significant unseen costs—particularly to local air and water quality, biodiversity, and human health, not to mention dangerous impacts to the global climate system. For example, when we turn on the lights we don’t see the abnormally high levels of cancer and birth defects in the poor, rural communities immediately adjacent to mountaintop removal coal mining. Nor could we see the hundreds of Appalachian mountains that simply no longer exist. When we bump up the heat a few more degrees we don’t see the Pennsylvania landowners whose water supplies have been tainted by hydrofracking or the ecosystems destroyed by the dumping of toxic chemicals used in the fracking process. When we take the SUV for a trip to Wegmans, we don’t see the vast destruction of the Alberta tar sands oil fields—with sludge ponds that can be seen from space—or the Native American communities whose treaties are being broken yet again for the sake of economic convenience.

As with many things, the answers to these “out of sight, out of mind” problems remains complicated. We will undoubtedly continue to throw things away, turn on the lights, heat our homes, and drive to the store. However, only when such hidden problems are made visible can we fulfill our God-given responsibility to steward the earth. Recycling and switching to renewable energy are a great start. What next?!? P.S. Want to exercise energy stewardship at home? Switching your residential electric supply to The Energy Cooperative of America’s 100% Renewable Electric program is easy and costs about the same as RGE’s standard service. Google it to find out more info. Also, recycling at the town transfer station is free and easy.

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