I suppose a starting place is to remember what things in the past have motivated me to reduce my environmental impact. The most dramatic was living in a village in Botswana where I had no electricity, no running water, and no car, yet lived quite happily. I read great novels by kerosene lamp, fetched my water in a bucket on my head (to the great amusement of the village children), and rode my bike to the school where I taught. When I needed to go further, I hitchhiked, like everyone else. Doing laundry by hand was the only hardship, and I confess I hired a local woman to do that for me. After two and a half years, returning to the United States was a difficult transition, especially my summer job working for a caterer where pounds of food were thrown away after every party. I got nicknamed “Mother Teresa” for driving leftovers to a soup kitchen and turning off the water whenever someone left the sink running. I felt very alone during that period. As Martin commented last time, it is easier to do this work in community.
Over the twenty years since that Peace Corps experience, my life has gotten much less simple. I no longer ride my bike to the school where I teach, partly because I’m terrified of Philadelphia traffic, partly because there is a really big hill on the way home, and I’m not that ambitious any more, and partly because I wouldn’t have time after dropping the kids at their school. (The school bus leaves ridiculously early to follow a circuitous route, and my school and the kid’s are several miles away, so I take the train.) I no longer read by kerosene, but I do pay a little extra for renewable energy. I’m sure I use a lot more water now that I don’t bathe out of a basin, but the memory of carrying those buckets of water has stayed with me, so I take shorter showers than most Americans. I hardly ever bathe my kids, so that helps, too. We do compost scraps and recycle what we can, which I don’t find that onerous once you get it organized, but which would still be much easier if our city adopted single stream recycling. (On the plus side, the city gave us our compost bin.) Our house is relatively small and well insulated, but it is still about seven times as large as my unheated hut in Botswana. In short, I can see several ways that we are doing what we can to reduce our environmental impact, but when I think about what else we could do I come up against the tension between what is in my control and what is due to bigger societal forces than I can control alone.
The part of our lives I feel most wasteful is in the realm of transportation. While I take the train to school twice a week, on the days I’m not teaching I mostly drive. I could take the bus to the coffee shop (where I get much more writing done than at home), but the bus schedule is less predictable than the train, and time to write feels like my biggest scarcity. Also, I often shop or do errands on the way back from the coffee shop, and doing that for a family of four by bus doesn't feel very "simple." So what is the best thing to do: take the bus, walk the thirty-five minutes to the coffee shop, or drive and spend the saved time lobbying for increased fuel standards on cars or better public transportation? What is the balance between doing all I can in this area and following what I feel God is leading me to do, finish writing the book I’m working on?
As usual, I come back to the question of discernment. From a purely environmental point of view, the best thing I could have done would be to not have children. But I felt led to have children, and I’m clear that was the right choice. Our carbon footprint is not the only measure of our lives. On the other hand, it is easy to overlook our carbon footprint and toss off our consumption as something we just shouldn’t worry about, as many people I know still do. I wonder what of my driving habits I should be changing and where I just need to let go of the guilt, which I don’t find to be very productive. Unless the guilt is a call to change, which it could be. One of the signs we look for in discernment is peace. I feel peace about having two kids. I feel peace about the size of my house and the length of my showers. Perhaps my discomfort at the amount I drive my car is a nudge I should be paying attention to.