Reflections - Environment

The first exposure I can remember to modern environmental issues came on an old satiric weekly television program of the 1960s, called “The Week That Was.” The show was a bit of a predecessor to the type of news parodies that now appear on Comedy Central, and it played off the headlines of each prior week. Of course, if you go back far enough, Will Rogers used to read the newspaper out loud for laughs in his vaudeville show, for truth often is stranger than fiction. But the specific item that made an impression was a musical riff that used this refrain:Urbana, Illinois
“Pollution, pollution, brush your teeth with toothpaste,
And wash out your mouth with industrial waste.”

This was, of course, before the wave of national environmental legislation that began in 1970 and introduced the National Environmental Policy Act, the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the assortment of regulations that we now live with today. By the time the first Earth Day rolled around, in 1970, I was a sophomore at Cleveland State University. The Cuyahoga River had burned, the air pollution from the steel industry was palpable on a daily basis, and I began to wonder what we could all do about it. Very quickly, I found myself organizing the student environmental group on campus, reading numerous books and articles, and getting involved in community coalitions around a number of issues then current in the Cleveland area. Much of the activity now looks relatively naïve, but necessarily so. It was the nation’s growing idealism about improving the quality of its air, land, and water that drove the movement, and the sophistication that drives much of today’s understanding of the environment grew out of the commitments that followed. There is nothing historically unusual about this. Our nation first decided to send men to the moon; it then went about the business of figuring out how to do it. Likewise, we committed ourselves to cleaning up the environment, and the technology and expertise grew over time.

What is more disappointing today is that so much energy has been invested in recent years in denying emergent problems like climate change rather than coming to grips with them. While there were denials in the Sixties of the seriousness of the environmental problem, the commitment to meaningful change then seemed much more bipartisan. The U.S. EPA was created under a Republican president. The public commitment to those early environmental initiatives stood up very well over time and withstood numerous political challenges. Now we need to move forward again, but the challenge is much larger, and the commitment seems painfully fragile, especially at the international level.

On a personal level, however, I think it is clear that I have spent considerable time and energy ever since those college days finding ways to honor my own commitment to a more environmentally healthy world. My second book, Deeper Shades of Green, was a majorAscension Parish - "Cancer Alley" effort to honor as well as analyze the grass roots activism that has arisen in working-class and minority communities across the U.S. around environmental justice issues. That book had its roots in my Cleveland experience, from three summers of work in a chemical plant earning college money, to direct experience with community groups there throughout the 1970s. In Iowa, my interest expanded to sustainable food production and the protection of rural farmlands and open space.

But it was in Chicago that I found an ideal way to marry those concerns with motivations arising from religious faith. Shortly after the 1988 merger of three Lutheran denominations into today’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I was among a number of people invited to a discussion of how to form a committee to address environmental stewardship within the ELCA’s new Metropolitan Chicago Synod. At that very first meeting, in the fall of 1989, I found myself drafted to chair the group. I have had the job ever since. Early on, our group, largely consisting of lay people, took a practical bent, seeking ways to demonstrate care of the earth through practical projects, so that we were not simply one more church committee talking about applying our faith to an issue (caring for God’s creation) without actually doing something concrete to improve matters. We started identifying ways in which congregations could become living examples of improved stewardship.

By 1992, we found our answer during a four-week adult forum discussion at Augustana Lutheran Church of Hyde Park, of which our family are members. A brainstorming session on the final Sunday identified energy conservation as the highest priority. Over subsequent months, one member who had worked in the utility industry conducted an audit of the building, identified opportunities for saving energy (and money) through lighting efficiency changes, and proposed options for doing so. By that fall, the congregation had voted to spend $3,000 to undertake what the Environmental Concerns Working Group (the synod entity I chair) deemed a pilot project, and implemented a number of lighting changes that replaced bulbs in the sanctuary, outdoors, hallways (including exit signs), and other locations. The end result, measured over the following year, was a 40 percent reduction in electricity consumption and a one-third reduction in electricity costs, totaling about $1,200 in annual savings. As I began to tell other congregations, these are savings that allow members to see more of their money go to the mission of the church instead of paying utility bills and polluting the environment through power plant emissions.

The following year, the ELCA offered us a $5,000 seed grant to launch a revolving loan fund to aid other congregations in making similar changes. With that money, we undertook two other projects fairly quickly. Over time, our mustard seed has grown, chiefly with the help of a $65,000 grant in 2000 from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, $45,000 of which expanded the loan fund, so that today we have nearly $60,000 in working capital. We have worked with nearly two dozen of our synod’s 200 congregations; the money keeps rolling over, and in some cases, we have helped churches with schools or day care centers to find additional money in grants and incentives from ICECF, Commonwealth Edison, and other sources, including Aid Association for Lutherans, an insurance company subsequently merged into Thrivent. Our working group sees this as a success story and a model, and we keep looking to do more. The full story is available online.  
What’s your contribution to leaving our children with a better world?


I have been fortunate to be able to advance those commitments in my career as well. The American Planning Association is committed Louisiana wetlandsto sensible environmental planning, to using professional skills to help create a quality environment in our communities, and I have shepherded a number of research and training projects over the years that have worked toward those goals.

One of the earliest was a small Planning Advisory Service Report, published in 1993, Industrial Performance Standards for a New Century. It was basically an exploration of how communities can best use performance standards for industrial land uses in their zoning ordinances to address ongoing potential nuisance issues like noise, odors, vibrations, hazardous waste storage, and related questions. In the process, I learned a great deal about some of the practical challenges facing industry, particularly small manufacturing firms. Periodically, I was involved in speaking or training on environmental planning issues in various forums, on issues like urban forestry and wildlife habitat preservation. For five years, I edited an APA newsletter, Environment & Development. Later, based on my familiarity with agricultural and rural planning issues, I was asked to produce another PAS Report, Planning and Zoning for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (1998).

From 2007-2008, as the project manager for Planning the Urban Forest: Ecology, Economy, and Community Development (2009), I became the voice of APA on urban forest planning issues. We later developed a one-day training workshop based on that report, under a matching grant from the U.S. Forest Service, which also provided a matching grant for the report in combination with support from American Forests and the International Society of Arboriculture.  More recently, we collaborated with the Forest Service to convene a June 2014 symposium in Washington, DC, that included representatives of several federal agencies including FEMA, on "Hazardous Tree Management and Post-Disaster Recovery," exploring ways to reduce vegetative debris resulting from major natural disasters.

One thing I love about all of this: There is almost no day when I leave work without having learned something that I consider valuable. In fact, I am thoroughly convinced now that I would not want a job where I did not learn something new every day. I am grateful to live in a time and society where such opportunity is abundant. I hope we can all live in our Information Age using our knowledge responsibly.