Saturday, January 22, 2011

Paying Attention Part 2: Amos and Aluminum

In thinking about spiritual practices and daily disciplines, it’s occurred to me that if a practice is purely personal it somehow misses the point. That is, our practices in some way need to reach beyond us, or they become more about us than a means to engage with God and the world around us.

I find I go back to Jesus when I’m trying to evaluate an idea; his practices always brought him right back into the heart of God’s work in the world. He withdrew for fasting and prayer, only to face head-on assault and temptation. His daily times of solitude and prayer were preparation for the teaching, miracles, and confrontations ahead.

In talking about the practice of paying attention, in An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about paying attention to food, where it comes from, the conditions that bring it to our table. She talks as well about the paper in catalogs, the realities behind the goods in those catalogs, and the need to approach even catalogs, or chicken dinners, with reverence:

“I understand why people snort at thoughts like these. I have laughed the same kind of laugh when people start talking earnestly about things I would rather not talk about. Reverence can be a pain. It is a lot easier to make chicken salad if you have never been stuck behind a chicken truck. It is easier to order a cashmere sweater if you do not know about the Chinese goats. And yet, these doors open onto the divine as surely as showers of falling stars do.”

I wonder, though, if there isn’t more to this idea of paying attention than bringing us to a place of reverence. It seems it should also bring us to a place of action.

In other words – if the things in our lives are brought there through processes that desecrate God’s creation, or that harm and abuse workers along the way, it may be that paying attention should be the first step toward change.

I was re-reading the book of Amos this week, as part of my Martin Luther King observance, and was challenged, as always, by the phrase King quoted again and again: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Streams start small, but gather strength. Righteousness starts as a trickle, then becomes an ever flowing stream.

Interesting that Amos was a shepherd and “dresser of sycamore figs,” his income clearly tied to the land and its proper use. In warning of God’s judgment against His people, he seems to be speaking to those who have stopped paying attention to the conditions that created their comfort:

"I will strike the winter house along with the summer house, and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end,” declares the Lord. “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan . .  who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, bring, that we may drink.” (Amos 3:15-4:2)

The words are harsh, and I would guess the women of Bashan, so unkindly called “cows,” would object that they had nothing to do with the poor or needy, hadn’t hurt anyone, and were simply minding their business, enjoying the good things God gave them.

Yet as I read and think about Amos’ words, I can’t help concluding that God holds us accountable for the source of the things we enjoy, even if we don’t really know where they come from, what they cost, who has paid in what way. "Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end.” He speaks to those who “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat.” (Amos 8:4, 6). There’s exploitation here, of both people and land, and God is calling his people to give an account.

I’ve been conscious, for some time, of the exploitation that takes place in some of our daily products. Coffee, for instance, is often harvested by forced labor, sometimes by children, in conditions physically harmful to the workers and the environment. Am I responsible for paying attention to the journey from bean to cup? I believe I am, and buy my own daily Equal Exchange coffee at Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade supplier committed to improving the quality of life of small cooperatives throughout the world. A recent Christianity Today article describes ways churches can be involved in seeking justice in this area. My own church, I’m glad to say, sells coffee supplied directly from church partners in Kenya.

So yes, I pay attention to coffee. But what about all the other things I eat and drink in a day? Cocoa is another product deeply implicated in child labor. How do I find cocoa that hasn’t been harvested and sold through exploitation of the poor? ? And chocolate? As much as I can, I buy those at Ten Thousand Villages from the same company, Equal Exchange.

And what about all the other goods that find their way into my home?

I had never heard of bauxite until a few months ago. As far as I know, I have none in my house. But I have plenty of the primary product of bauxite mines: aluminum. Bauxite is strip mined from the surface of the earth, or mined in open pits, then processed with heat, electricity, chemical catalysts, and large amounts of water. The environmental implications are huge: polluted water, acid rain, toxic air-borne dust, destruction of habitat, loss of topsoil, and a heavily metallic red sludge that is left when the process is over.

One account I read offered these numbers: for every ton of aluminum gained, 35 tons of bauxite ore need to be mined, and after introduction of clean water, the process yields 40 tons of red sludge and polluted dust.

I don’t understand the science behind it. What I do understand is that our inexpensive aluminum chairs, aluminum foil, pie plates, roasting pans and other products are bought at the cost of the health, environment, and long-standing way of life of poor people around the globe.

One other thing worth noting: aluminum is 100% recyclable. It’s incredibly costly to produce, but relatively easy to re-use.

So what does it mean to pay attention on this issue? An environmental blog discussing this in detail suggests:

 “Consider becoming an 'aluminum Scrooge' by using as little aluminum as you can, while recycling or re-using what you must use.... Find a lid for that yam pan! Give the leftovers to friends in re-usable containers! 

Recycling really changes the sustainability equation for aluminum. Despite its high recycling potential, however, just half of aluminum cans are recycled. Each one that is thrown away is like throwing away a full can of gasoline in wasted energy. And it’s not just about putting the cans in the bin; it’s about using less, and reusing what you can. It’s also possible to buy aluminum foil made of recycled metal. And, of course, to drink fewer sodas in cans.

 Think of it as a gift to the world’s rivers.”

I love rivers, and would love to save them. But the world is more complicated than that, right? And my recycling efforts won’t change the steady march of multinational business across the globe. Yet I need to start somewhere.

Two resources to help in paying attention, to this and other issues:

The Better World Shopping Guide. Book, iphoned app and website all offer advise on spending money in ways that honor workers, protect the environment, and care for communities. Our family has made changes based on what we’ve learned, and we've discovered some great new companies and products in the process.

My Recycle List  Website and downloadable iphone app give specific locations and ways to recycle almost anything.

Am I responsible for the whole world? No, just my footprint in it, and the footprints of those who walk with me. Which demands I pay attention.

          Stubborn Ounces”
            (To One Who Doubts the Worth of Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything)

             You say the little efforts that I make
             will do no good: they never will prevail
             to tip the hovering scale
             where Justice hangs in balance.

             I don’t think
             I ever thought they would.
             But I am prejudiced beyond debate
             in favor of my right to choose which side
             shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight. (Bonaro Overstreet)

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.