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Here’s what greeted me on my return from study leave:

UUCPA Main Hall walkways with 12,000-watt solar array

Or would have done if I could fly. Actually, I saw them from ground level, and lifted the photo from this article.

A lot of people at our church worked very hard and gave very generously to make this happen. I hope it means that everyone who comes onto the congregation’s campus will immediately know that we respect the earth, its creatures, and those who will come after us.

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I didn’t blog all last week because we were on a family road trip to Southern California, so daytime was for driving and/or activities like hanging out with my mom or touring Legoland, and nighttime was for much-needed unscheduled time with the family, and sleep. It was great. The first day took us down Route 5 through the Central Valley, which contains about 1% of the country’s agricultural land but produces 8% of its agriculture. The politics of water, a major issue in California, is in your face, with various pleas to make water cheaper and reminders that cheap food depends on it. “Food grows where water flows,” the signs say. “Congress-created dust bowl”–they mean Democratic Congress-created, since the signs list the culprits as Pelosi, Boxer, and the local Congressman, Jim Costa. My primary impression whenever I pass through this land, however, is bewilderment that anything edible grows here at all. It’s practically a desert–not a dust bowl, but very dry land. Rerouting water here in the amounts needed to raise things like fruit trees, lettuce, and cattle is a major problem–as anyone in the Sacramento Delta can tell you. It seems that there just isn’t enough water to green this valley and still have salmon in the rivers and water in the pipes of cities with populations in the millions.

My first impression is not quite right, though. Actually, the desert, like the abundance of food growing in it, has largely been created by humans. The valley used to be a mix of grassland, woodlands, and marshland, with lots of rivers. We turned the grassland into fields, cut down the forests, drained the marshes, and diverted the rivers to irrigate the farms and provide water for 30 million people around Los Angeles, as well as the smaller but significant population centers of the Bay Area, Sacramento, and the lower Valley itself. Now we are trying to grow food in what has indeed become a desert.

On a related political issue, I hid from the heat in the air conditioning of the car, and whenever I had to emerge for gas and food, the heat of the air was like a hammer pounding me into the ground. I can’t imagine going out there day after day to plant or pick, unless I had no other options. Maybe Mexicans feel otherwise, being more accustomed to a hot climate, but there’s only so much adjusting a human body can do; farm workers die of the heat there every year. One thing’s for sure, it’s the kind of job that should be very generously compensated, if we compensate based on the value of the work done and the strength needed to accomplish it. Obviously we don’t. Another hidden cost of our cheap food.

We drove by fields (lettuce and strawberries), orchards (almonds was our guess), enormous feedlots where a lot of the country’s beef cattle live out the last one-third to one-quarter of their lives (beef-eating friends tell me the taste is about what you’d expect compared to grass-fed cattle, but obviously most consumers of beef are fine with it). The water policies of the past several decades have given rise to entire communities, a history and a home, a whole way of life for many thousands of people, that are now threatened by changes in policy; yet the old policies don’t seem to be sustainable. No wonder the people are angry. What is a fair approach to solving the dilemma we’ve created?

Being an environmentalist and a parent of a young child, in my stroll around the ‘net I naturally stopped to read a blog entry called “Six Ways to Raise Eco-Conscious Toddlers.” The most important thing I do to try to teach my daughter environmental responsibility wasn’t on the list, so midway through commenting I realized I needed to write about it myself.

It isn’t explicitly about ecology at all. It crops up, not when we’re brushing teeth and I turn the water off, or when she’s learning that buses are a fun way to travel. It’s an opportunity that occurs many times every day, and if you spend any time with children, it does for you too:

Teach them to clean up after themselves.

As I said, I’m the parent of a three-year-old, so I know it’s easier to clean up yourself than to get kids to do it.  But children who find, “if I let it fall, it’s magically picked up and put away” grow into adults who think, “whatever mess I make isn’t my problem.” And that’s why they choose to believe that “The oceans / the air / the landfills have plenty of room” for whatever they throw “away.” They come to believe that there is such a thing as “away.” As grownups they assert, against the evidence, that “The earth can take care of itself” no matter what we do to it.

So when we say to our kids, “We need to put away the Legos before we get out the fingerpaints–here, I’ll help you,” we are teaching them sustainability and giving them a life skill that may keep our planet fit for human habitation.  If it isn’t too late by the time they are our age . . .

I think about this as a religious educator (and yes, parish ministers are religious educators, which is why I belong to LREDA*) and I strongly believe that in our religious education (RE) programs, cleaning up should be part of the hour, unless we want to teach children that messes magically clean up themselves–or are someone else’s problem.

We Unitarian Universalists (UUs) frequently do include environmental education in RE, where it absolutely belongs, a lively part of a basic moral education whose principles include:  don’t take more than your share; think ahead; think of others’ needs as well as your own; know the difference between needs and desires; take responsibility for the consequences of your actions.  To give examples just from the congregation I serve, the kids have made recycled paper, cooked lunch in solar ovens, written letters to paper companies, and played with models demonstrating what happens to a town built on permafrost when the Earth warms up.  They vote each year on where their collection money goes, and have voted many times to give it to rainforest protection.

That’s all good stuff. But even when the topic is “holidays and holy days,” “our religious heritage,” or “wisdom from the world’s religions,” an environmental lesson can be a part of every Sunday.  The kids get that lesson when the teacher says, “Ten minutes left.  Time to clean up, everyone,” and makes sure that everyone participates.

As with my three-year-old, who is much more motivated to throw her Legos in the box if I’m sitting beside her throwing too, we don’t have to make them do it all themselves. The teachers can help. The littlest kids don’t have to put things on high shelves. And we can explain that the kids’ parents pool their funds to pay our custodian to mop the floors and change the lights so that the kids have more time to learn (though I think a rotation of cleanup among all church members, children and adults alike, would be a good supplement to a paid custodian in any congregation). The important point is that they realize that the person who made the mess is ultimately responsible for getting things back to their original state. (Maybe I’m an environmentalist today because Montessori education, with its “everyone cleans up” philosophy, got its hooks into me when I was only 3. My preschool bears no responsibility for the cluttered state of my office, however. Hey, at least I live with the mess instead of expecting someone else to clean it up.)

As my UU colleague, Robert Fulghum, wrote in “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” the key lessons are there:  “Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.”  The folks running BP, and the folks in Washington who let oil companies write environmental laws, and the folks all over the US who voted for them, and the folks all over the US who wrung their hands and stuck a “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Gore” sticker on their cars instead of taking action (I confess that I appear in that list), apparently didn’t fully absorb those lessons in kindergarten, but it’s not too late for today’s 5-year-olds. So, UU churches: who cleans up in your classrooms?

*Liberal Religious Educators’ Association

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