The Rev. Sally Bingham brings her full spiritual focus to bear on environmental issues, declaring, "If God requires you to love your neighbor, then you shouldn't pollute your neighbor's air."
And religious groups, she feels, have a special responsibility to fight things like global warming. "The faith community should lead by example," she maintains. In Genesis, notes Bingham, God calls creation "good," thus affirming its sacred nature. In her view, that makes environmental stewardship a natural part of any church's work.
On Friday, Nov. 8, Bingham will bring her environmental gospel to Asheville. Several local groups have joined forces to pull together a pair of events enabling WNC residents to hear Bingham's message (see box).
Although the U.S. is home to only 4.7 percent of the world's population, Americans account for roughly 25 percent of the world's energy consumption and produce about 25 percent of the heat-trapping greenhouse gases, according to a study published last year by UCLA's Institute of the Environment. In June 2001, the National Academy of Sciences reaffirmed that the earth is getting warmer. Glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, tropical diseases are spreading, and severe weather events are becoming more frequent.
As environmental minister at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, co-director of Episcopal Power and Light, director of the Regeneration Project (the nonprofit umbrella organization under which EP&L operates), and a trustee of Environmental Defense, Bingham has made environmental protection her ministry. In May 2001, she and 22 other religious activists were arrested while praying outside the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., to protest the Bush Administration's energy policy and its proposal to drill in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge.
Caring for creation
"Every religious tradition forbids theft, yet every day we live unsustainably," proclaims "Religious Witness for the Arctic Refuge," a manifesto signed by groups opposed to drilling there. This same philosophy underlies Bingham's campaign to promote renewable, minimally polluting "green energy."
The EP&L ministry was launched in 1996 at an Episcopal Environmental Network meeting. Bingham (representing California) and Massachusetts resident Steve MacAusland decided to form their own 501 (c)(3) nonprofit ministry to promote practical means of curbing air pollution and waste reduction. The organization has no membership dues; it's funded entirely by grants and individual donations.
One of EP&L's first projects was a covenant calling on participants to help fight global warming through such conservation measures as having an energy audit or installing solar panels.
Bingham recalls that almost a year went by before the first congregation took the plunge. Once a number of churches had come on board, however, the project gained momentum. To date, 175 congregations have signed on. The key, says Bingham, was getting the vestries to realize that paying a little more in the short term would actually save them money over the long haul.
From 1997 to 2000, until California's energy crisis intervened, consumers in that state could choose to buy energy from a 100 percent "green" provider. Using grant funds, EP&L was able to offer congregations financial incentives to help offset the costs of embracing that choice. That option has since been terminated, and EP&L is now emphasizing energy efficiency and conservation.
EP&L's ministry, says Bingham, "is primarily to educate and involve church leaders in the care of creation," regardless of their specific denomination.
Ecology begins at home
Faith-based environmental activism is already a growing trend in North Carolina. The organizers of Climate Change: A Faith-based Response include Kim Carlyle (co-chair of Climate Connection: N.C. Interfaith Eco-justice Network and a coordinator for Quaker Eco-Witness) and JoAnna and Richard Fireman of the Jubilee! Earth Team and Green Sangha of WNC, a Buddhist group devoted to embodying their faith by working for environmental and social justice.
These groups have lobbied members of the General Assembly on environmental issues, including pushing for passage of the Clean Smokestacks Act. Carlyle has also worked with an environmental stakeholder to bring green energy to our state. By early 2003, he predicts, "Anybody who has a utility bill in N.C. will have the option of choosing green power."
Initially, that electricity will probably be produced by burning landfill-generated methane gas (because other methods have not yet been developed in N.C.), but solar and wind power will soon be part of the mix. The EnergyXchange Renewable Energy Center, with facilities in Yancey and Avery counties, is already tapping landfill methane for industrial heat, with electrical generation set to start in the near future. In some states with established alternative programs, the mainstream power companies also produce the green energy. Here, however, the power will come from new, independent sources, opening the door for green energy to become part of the standard utility mix. The Renewable Portfolio Standard, a plan being pushed by energy activists around the country, mandates a mix of renewable and nonrenewable energy sources for all utility customers.
Environmental awareness, these activists maintain, spills over into many other contemporary issues. Green Sangha members have also taken part in demonstrations at the nuclear-weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and opposing the construction of the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste dump in Nevada. And Bingham feels nuclear energy is not a viable option -- not because of global warming but because of accidents. "If you have a world with terrorism, then wouldn't you choose a wind farm" as a power source, she asks.
From this perspective, alternative energy sources can be seen as tools for world peace. "Turn on [your car's] ignition switch and Middle Eastern oil is being used," Carlyle observes. "If people make that connection, then maybe they would be more likely to combine trips, use public transportation, or ride a bike" instead of driving. And Richard Fireman points out that if the U.S. had followed then-President Jimmy Carter's suggestion that the nation begin converting to solar energy, then Saddam Hussein might not even be an issue today. Carter, recalls Fireman, installed solar panels on the White House -- a symbolic act not wasted on Ronald Reagan, who had them removed when he took office.
But conservation, stresses Bingham, doesn't have to mean scarcity or sacrifice. "I don't want people to think quality of life needs to change in the slightest -- we just need to cut back on the waste," she says.
"Everything we do affects another person," she concludes.
Who: The Rev. Sally Bingham of the Regeneration Project
What: Climate Change, A Faith-based Response
When & Where: Friday, Nov. 8. Luncheon presentation, 11:30-1:30 (First Baptist Church, 5 Oak St., Asheville - $8 per person); evening presentation, 7 p.m. (Jubilee! Community Church, 46 Wall St., Asheville - by donation).
Advance registration is required for the luncheon; contact Kim Carlyle (828-626-2572, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) no later than Tuesday, Nov. 5.
The biggest hindrance to positive environmental change, says local activist Kim Carlyle, is "cultural inertia. We are just used to doing things and we take them for granted. People don't realize what the consequences are beyond flipping a switch and having a light or TV, but what is happening is more dirty, polluting coal is being used."
Here are some simple steps that can have a big impact on energy consumption, air pollution and global warming:
• Switch from incandescent to compact-fluorescent light bulbs. A $7 compact-florescent bulb lasts about 10,000 hours (compared to about 1,000 hours for an incandescent bulb); factor in the energy savings, and it adds up to about a 500 percent return on investment. In addition, one average compact-fluorescent bulb keeps 1,300 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere over its lifetime, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
• Drive a smaller car (and avoid SUVs, which are less fuel-efficient and produce more pollution).
• Turn down the hot-water heater from 160 degrees (the average setting) to around 115 or 120 degrees.