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I Want to Save the Planet…But I’m Late for the School Run

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Recently, a Desert Tribe member got in touch to share her concerns about the environment, and her guilt that, in the busyness and intensity of having young kids, she didn’t feel like she was doing very much.

I find it hard to be an environmentally friendly mum and meet the expectations that are out there. I know I’m meant to not purchase fruit in plastic wrapping or buy bags of single serve kids’ snacks, use disposable plastic toothbrushes or use shampoo in a plastic bottle! But honestly, it feels like all I can manage in life is to feed the kids, get them out of door in the morning and back into bed every day.

I can’t see space to catch a bus to go to the market to buy unpackaged fresh food when the supermarket over the road is so much more convenient (with its packaged food). It’s so helpful having little prepared snacks to chuck in the bag in the rush out the door and finding some other type of toothbrush is beyond me, let alone making my own shampoo bars.

But I do feel guilty for making the choice to survive in this way, every time I throw out another plastic food wrapper. I’m sure there’s more I could be doing even though it feels beyond me. I have a degree in Environmental Science and in high school spent time selling raffle tickets to save whales, dolphins and rainforests. What has become of me?”

Desert Tribe member (to join the Tribe, click here!

I’m not sure if she realised this, but she pretty much put my exact feelings into words, right there.

Is it a sentiment you can relate to also?

How do we make ethical decisions when we're already consumed by the challenges of parenting and family life?

We are all becoming increasingly aware of the changes we need to make to our lives in order to protect our world – not least through our children themselves.

For example, our kids are doing a ‘Fragile Earth’ topic at school right now, so if my own awareness that we should be doing more for the environment wasn’t enough, I now have children who are desperate to make pretty drastic – and therefore unrealistic – alterations to life, based on what they’ve been learning in school.

With this increased awareness comes an increased guilt. That is only to be expected when there are actions we know we need to take, reduce or stop.

Impossible?

Yet as parents, desperate for quick fixes and easy solutions to make this often-wearisome journey a little more straightforward, so many of the suggested lifestyle-changes seem out of our reach.

* We can’t go vegan, because our children eat literally one vegetable between them.

* We can’t avoid flying, because our children’s aunts/uncles/grandparents live overseas.

* We can’t avoid the car, because our small child can’t walk that far. And because hoiking the whole family around by bus will break us.

* We can’t start buying whole foods, filling up our own containers, because the shop which sells this stuff is the other side of town, and the logistics of getting there with children (and containers) are just impossible.

… and so on. Perhaps some of these changes are ones you have been able to make as a family. I’m not saying they’re impossible. Some families will find some things easier than others. For example, we rarely fly as a family. But we’ve made very little conscious effort to cut down our plastic use (although we’ve recently tried to source zero-waste snacks which don’t use plastic packaging!).

My point is that it’s really difficult to make big lifestyle changes when you’re also responsible for one, two, three or more small people. Us parents often make statements such as, “If it was just me, I’d be happy to…” or “If I was going on my own, then I could…” – in other words, we’re happy to sacrifice our own quality of living for the sake of a philosophy or belief we see the value in. But when it comes to our kids, this isn’t always possible or desirable.

Challenging

Lest this sounds like I’m making excuses, let me say right here that I do think it’s important to make sacrificial decisions as a family. I don’t believe our job as parents is to ensure our children’s comfort at all costs. I’ve blogged before about 50 non-plastic alternatives to party bag fillers and – more recently – 20 children’s snacks which aren’t wrapped in plastic. I do believe it’s possible – and right – to make these eco-friendly choices where we can.

But I do also know the pressures on parents of fitting everything in to a small number of hours. I understand how some of the environmental stuff feels overwhelming when our brains are crammed full of work deadlines, our children’s extra-curricular schedule and church involvement.

So – what is the solution? How can we make ethical changes in a way which feels manageable, and not likely to tip us over the edge? How can we sift through the information presented to us without feeling totally overwhelmed and depressed about the world we’re leaving to our children?

I’m not going to attempt to tell you which decisions your family should make – only you can do that. But I’m going to share a few principles which I’ve found helpful in retaining my sanity through the environmental crisis.

Recognise the discrepancies

For a while, everyone was trying to use paper bags rather than plastic bags. Plastic, as we know, takes hundreds of years to biodegrade. It ends up in our oceans, killing a whole load of sea life.

And then some information came out that the printing of paper bags had a huge carbon footprint. We also realised that the shelf-life of a paper bag is likely to be less than a plastic bag – they get wet, they rip, they can’t be used as often.

This is one example of a whole host of discrepancies involved in ethical decisions. Do we buy the plastic-wrapped FairTrade bananas, or the loose ones which may have picked and packed by workers not earning enough to feed their families? Do we put our cartons and silver foil in the bin, or do we release more fumes into the atmosphere by driving them to the tip to recycle?

Recently, my friend’s husband – an anaesthetist – attended some training on the impact of their work on the environment. Although conclusions are hard to draw for definite, it was suggested that the average carbon footprint of anaesthetising one patient was around 1,000 miles driven by a small car.

Sourcing the gases used in anaesthetics, refining them, and transporting them to where they are needed is having a huge impact on our planet. And yet, as the mother of a little girl who broke her arm last summer and needed complicated surgery, I’d be the last person to deny anyone the opportunity for some pain relief.

I think it’s good to remember that most ethical choices are complicated. There is no ‘right’ solution. There may be a better one, for sure, but if we’re not in a position to make that particular decision, beating ourselves up about it is not only counter-productive, but often unjustified.

We all make an impact on the environment

Similarly, it’s good to be aware that, just by living, we are having an impact on the environment. We were created to inhabit, populate, and enjoy the world God has made.

Is it possible to live a totally carbon-neutral life? I’m not sure it is. And even if it was – would it be a life full of the possibilities God has ordained for us?

Some ethical decisions I’ve toyed with in the past have not been possible because of the number of children we have (e.g. traipsing across town to buy whole foods). However, I strongly believe that adoption – the means by which we have some of our children – is an ethical choice in itself. We are not only called to steward God’s earth, but to look after its people. Doing so will incur some cost to the environment.

My sense here is that we all need to do what we can to ‘tread lightly’ on the earth. Again, this is about not feeling guilty for what we can’t do, but trying to make our actions as low-impact as possible.

This, of course, is easier said than done! But I do think a lot of it is about stripping our lives back to a simpler way of doing things.

Rather than putting energy into finding out where we can recycle our children’s snack packaging, it might be worth asking if we can stick to non-packaged snacks instead. Check out 20 Snacks Which Don’t Use Plastic for ideas!

Rather than working out the most environmentally-friendly way to get to our next holiday destination, it might be worth considering a simpler holiday, closer to home.

Rather than looking for cosmetics and toiletries which comes in non-plastic packaging, maybe we can reduce the number we use altogether.

Whenever you’re faced with an ethical decision, think to yourself: Do I need to be making this decision at all? Am I asking the right question? Or am I assuming we ‘need’ to have something in our lives which we don’t actually need at all?

The beauty of stepping back and trying to look at developing a simpler lifestyle, rather than agonising over each and every decision, is that you end up with just that: something which is simpler, not more complicated. Something which frees up time, rather than eating it. A new habit your family can adopt which will actually reduce stress for you all.

Technology plays a huge part

My husband gave a couple of sermons on environmental stuff last year, and I was shocked to hear, from his research, that sometime around 2019 or 2020 (depending which source you read), technology – specifically, data processing – will overtake aviation as the biggest contributor towards climate change. Remember that next time you turn to Google for the nearest place to recycle a crisp packet.

This seems to be one of a number of scientific research pieces suggesting that an over-reliance on technology is bad for us.

Obviously it’s not practical to give up our phones and devices altogether, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we don’t need them in today’s world – but, to me, this suggests that periods of time away from my screen are a Good Thing. It suggests that that I need to try and remember things myself first, before heading to Google. And it reminds me not to over-use the technological tools available to me (hello, Google Analytics).

Overall, I think it’s just another reminder to us that ethical decisions aren’t straightforward. Is it better to save paper by emailing a document instead of printing and sending? I’m honestly not sure anymore.

We need to take our children’s concerns seriously

When our children start to learn about the pressing environmental issues – whether at school, in the news, or inspired (as many children are) by Greta Thunberg – we would do well to listen and take them seriously.

Our children, after all, will probably be living in this broken world longer than we will. They have a right to have input into their future. And if we don’t take seriously their concerns and positive ideas now – however crazy, impossible, or even if they’re not going to make any difference at all – their passion will fade and they may grow into complacent adults, with any enthusiasm for protecting the earth a distant memory.

Let’s not beat this out of them while they’re young, but instead encourage and support their efforts, whether it’s creating posters to raise awareness, baking cakes to raise money for environmental charities, or writing to people in positions of authority.

Even if we think their small action may not have an impact, we must allow our children to take ownership of this issue, so that they know they’re powerful to affect change. And who knows, maybe their small action will have a big impact? It’s not our call to decide.

God is sovereign over creation

When I’m starting to get frazzled by all the many ways I’m failing in my call to steward the earth wisely, unsure how to support locally-produced food when I have no time to get to the shops which sell it, or gazing despairingly at the rows of plastic bottles on our bathroom shelf, it encourages me to remember that God is sovereign.

This is not a cop-out. Our response to the crumbling world around is should not be to simply shrug our shoulders and say “Oh well, Jesus is coming back one day so it doesn’t matter”.

The Bible makes it very clear that God has called us to steward creation wisely (Genesis 2:15). It is really important that, as Christians especially, we don’t close our eyes to the problems we need to solve, or the situations we need to turn around.

But when we are trying to prayerfully make decisions for our families, when we are trying to live lightly, when we are open to new information and education on these issues, I really think that the foundational knowledge of our sovereign God being in control will stop us going crazy with worry about it all.

One day Jesus will return, and our sin – which is causing the destruction of our planet – will be defeated forever. God will create a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). We will live as we were intended to, putting others first and not creating things which damage them or the environment.

It’s such a complex issue – one I think we need to take seriously, but not lose sleep over. God is in control, and asks us to trust Him for Jesus’ return.

Over to you. How do you navigate the tricky area of environmental concern in your family? Please share your tips and ideas in the comments!

2 Comments

  1. What a great topic to have covered! 😉 Thank you for writing this. Also, the Captcha is more friendly now – great!

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