Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Reflections on the Sustainability Summit

(November 8-10, 2013)

The gathering was all about sustainability! Not only was that true of the name of the conference, but I could feel it emanating from the participants as I entered the meeting room. I could sense a positive energy running very deeply in the 33 college students who had come together from 7 different institutions for the weekend.

It was fitting that the Sunday morning session I led was taking place in the Barn at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. The sturdy oak beams of the Barn ––erected 111 years ago –– wonderful represent the enduring quality of sustainability. I often reflect on the timeframe portrayed by the beams knowing that the trees from which the beams came began to grow long before Europeans settled the landscape that is now Merry Lea.

The beams bear the marks of the axes that carved out their shape from the once living trees. These hand-hewn beams have a 111-year history of supporting the Barn throughout its many phases of use –– from cows and hay to people and hardy meals. At the same time the beams remind us of the verdant forest that once dominated the landscape. The degradation to the land caused by humans is in full evidence even as restoration activities are part of the Merry Lea mission. The Barn symbolizes the tension between human activity and the resilience of the Earth systems.

My dialogue with the students gathered in the Barn centered on how our faith commitments should be congruent with our sustainability goals – and vice versa. I believe that we each have a belief system that influences our actions – and if we haven’t thought about that intersection, it is time that we do. My personal Christian faith commitment is deeply rooted in the Christ who is Creator, Sustainer and Reconciler (Colossians 1:15-21). This threefold action set inspires me to be a creative companion with Christ in caring for all of creation.

A central theme in my presentation was the concept of regeneration –– an even higher calling than the pursuit of sustainability. This is the act of bringing life back to a system, not just keeping if from further degradation. It is a holistic term as it calls to mind actions ranging from the ecological to the spiritual. The practice of regeneration will build the common good for all parts of the Earth’s systems. Jesus named this concept many times in his earthly ministry. One of my favorites is in the Sermon on the Mount as he names birds, flowers and grass as models of regeneration and health (Matthew 6:25-34). How richly our beliefs can undergird our commitment to care for creation!

I appealed to the listeners –– and now the readers –– to examine our beliefs, values and philosophical frameworks (regardless of faith tradition) to see what the intersection is with the call to care for the Earth. I believe that naming and owning these foundational principles will inspire and motivate us when the going is hard. The synergy that emerges from this gives me a realistic and powerful hope. It is this hope that will aid me in holistically contributing to the regeneration of systems we have harmed.

It is this hope that I could see in the faces of the students and advisors as I photographed the group at the end of the conference with a restored wetland at Merry Lea as the backdrop.  Just as the wind was blowing hair in multiple directions, the energy from the gathered group was moving individuals to many hopeful actions as they departed for home.

by Luke Gascho

1 comment:

  1. A couple of months ago, I enjoyed following a discussion on LinkedIn's "Sustainability Professionals" group page. The topic was the role of faith (i.e. religious beliefs) in sustainability. Strong opinions were voiced at both ends of the spectrum, but a popular opinion that stuck out to me was the point that sustainability is a belief system in and of itself. Being motivated to act sustainably requires a belief that broken systems CAN be restored to a sustainably functioning state. In my mind, it was the source of the motivation that was at issue on this particular forum. Either one is motivated to act for the benefit of future generations, or the motivation comes from a desire to serve God. Of course, those motivations are not mutually exclusive. Whether you believe that we are wholly in control of our fate and the fate of our planet, or you believe that control is gifted and dictated by a loving Creator who desires our obedience, our end goal is the same in the context of sustainability.
    I thought of this forum often at the Sustainability Summit. Our crowd was largely Christian, though not entirely. I was so pleased at the encouragement the Christian participants seemed to draw from interacting with like-minded peers, though I was equally glad to have secular students present. Working together with people different from ourselves is paramount if we are to achieve a sustainable future; there needs to be a space at the table for everyone! I hope that the students came away not only equipped to make sustainable changes at their campuses, but also to understand both the motivations of others and the necessity of working with diverse stakeholders. After interacting with these bright individuals, I have greater optimism for our shared future.