Walking Softly on the Earth (Rev. Lou Snead)
Walking Softly on the Earth
There is a line in a Native American poem where the author prays to the Great Spirit of Life to give him the wisdom “to walk softly on the earth”. This is, of course, an ancient metaphor that recognizes our human responsibility to take care of the natural environment on which we live and depend for our existence. We might expect those who live close to the earth, who depend on hunting and gathering natural plants and animals for their survival, to appreciate their immediate connection to the health of their environment. Those of us, however, who simply go to the grocery store for our food or who use vehicles for our transportation may not appreciate the fragility of nature in the same way the original Americans on this continent did. Both the abundance of and easy access to basic necessities like food, water, clothing, energy and other life resources have a way of numbing us to the interdependence of all life forms. Our modern consumerist culture has us walking briskly and firmly on the earth, not softly. Industrialized countries like ours have actually followed a more rapacious policy towards the natural environment; stripping the resources we need from the earth on large scales to provide energy and materials, over-fishing the seas, pouring chemicals into the soils to stimulate agricultural prosperity.
Many of us modern, urban types are now resonating with this Native American calling to walk softly on the earth. This respect for the planet is becoming an even more critical today than it was a thousand years ago when it was offered as a prayer. For many of us there are plenty of signs around telling us that human activity on our planet is having severely adverse effects on the health of the earth and, ultimately, on all of us who still depend heavily on Mother Nature for our survival. Yet, there are plenty of others in America who don't really believe that human activity is having such a negative impact on the earth's ability to provide incessantly abundant resources for us. To their way of thinking, the scientific data about climate change and global warning is a “hoax”, perpetuated by alarmists who are concerned about the health of trees more than the health of people. They have great faith in the restorative powers of the earth and in the technological ingenuity of humanity to keep the supply chain of goods and resources going strong and the prosperity of industrialized nations increasing. In fact, some believe it's an economic benefit for everyone on the planet to walk briskly and firmly on the earth; so, they are all for burning cheap fossil fuels, cultivating more of the land, extracting more oil or coal or uranium, harvesting more timber, fishing the far-reaches of the oceans and making more as many natural resources available as possible to drive our economy and increase our standard of living.
Our nation's new political regime accepts this premise. They believe our government, and even the larger international community, have been overly concerned in recent years about walking softly on the earth. Such an orientation toward our planet is not necessary. The idea now is to spend more money on national defense, infrastructure repairs, and border security and reduce what we spend on protecting the environment or trying to curb emissions from automobiles. So, what can those of us who want to continue to practice walking softly on the earth do in the face of this reactive intent to walk briskly and firmly on the earth?
Most environmental stewards know what we must do: find ways to make our homes and businesses more energy efficient, turn down our thermostats in winter and up in the summer, replace our incandescent lights with LED, cut our water consumption and limit the irrigation of our landscapes, recycle our trash, reduce your meat consumption and eat organic as much as possible, etc. All of these practices help, especially since we are among the largest natural resource hogs on the planet. Promoting and relying on renewable energy sources, like our City Council and public utility has done in Georgetown, in Austin, and in San Antonio, can and will help our communities to walk more softly on the earth.
But none of this would come close to doing as much as changing our modes of transportation by walking more, taking public transportation whenever possible, and driving a fuel-efficient vehicle. Some of the latest research suggests that, if every vehicle on the road today averaged 31 miles per gallon, the United States could reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent. If the CAFE standards were increased to 56mpg we would see a 10% reduction in emissions. According to a recent University of Michigan Transportation Research study, we can cut harmful emissions in five energy use areas: residential, commercial, industry, agriculture and transportation. Studies now show that significant strides have been made in renewable energy sources and in energy efficiencies for homes, offices, industry, and agriculture. Transportation is now the biggest remaining challenge for our energy use and emissions. This is particularly important to address because our nation relies heavily on private transportation rather than mass public transportation.
To make matters worse, automobile consumers today seem to value spacious, comfortable, and easy to drive vehicles over fuel-efficient cars. The sheer number of light vehicle trucks with low fuel efficiencies that families buy for transportation rather than hauling material reveals an indifference to walking softly on the earth. Falling oil prices haven't helped either when it comes to the kind of vehicles we continue to buy and drive. Some environmental groups are now saying that improving fuel economy carries particular salience after the Trump administration announced this month its retention to relax the progressively more stringent Obama-era fuel economy standards for vehicles in model years 2022 to 2025.
What can we do as individuals to walk softly on the earth today?
I want to suggest that our choices about the modes of transportation we buy is as much a spiritual issue as it is an economic or convenience issue. If we claim to care about God's creation, then limiting our carbon footprint via our transportation emissions should be more important than our love affair with certain types of cars. Likewise, buying or leasing the highest fuel efficient vehicle we can afford (doesn't have to be a hybrid or electric vehicle, although these provide the greatest reductions in emissions) is as much a spiritual decision as how much money we decide to give to the church in gratitude to God for our blessings. Walking softly on the earth translates in modern terms into changing our consumer driven transportation habits and resisting the spacious, comfort mindset when it comes to car purchases. This ancient environmental imperative also challenges us spiritually today to call our civic leaders to adopt public policies that support higher CAFE standards to reduce automobile emissions that are damaging the health of our planet. I believe these are spiritually tangible ways for us to join the voices of old who prayed for the wisdom to walk softly on the earth.
--Rev. Lou Snead