The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Where materialism becomes good

Simply finishing a soda and tossing the aluminum shell into the nearest recycling bin hardly passes muster for an environmentally friendly ethic these days. But what does today’s environmentally friendly ethic look like? Let’s take a look at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn. (see 'Green Campus,' in The Lutheran’s November issue).

Before driving 40 miles from St. Paul, Minn., to Northfield to do interviews for the story, I checked out St. Olaf’s Web site. It was chock-full of information about food composters, wind turbines, "green" architecture, "green" chemistry, sustainability, etc. When I arrived on campus, I found what I’d already suspected: Those "green" elements were just the tip of a much larger effort.

I grabbed a seat in “Campus Ecology,” where my former adviser, Jim Farrell, professor of history and American studies, led students in a discussion of William McDonough’s essay, “A Boat for Thoreau.”

As morning sunlight filled the classroom, students spoke about living out values and developing a standard of loving rather than a standard of living. One student shared: “It’s OK to have some valuable things for yourself ... things with meaning ... actually caring about your goods.”

The conversation moved around the notion of finding work that leaves time in life for loving. A skeptical question sprang forth: “Is throwing yourself into work you are passionate about such a bad thing?” Another student immediately replied, “You have to pour yourself into your work, but you have to sustain yourself too.”

So what does this have to do with environmentalism? McDonough says we’re not materialistic enough. If we were more attached to our things, we’d be better environmental stewards.

A report from St. Olaf’s Sustainability Task Force shares a campuswide goal of becoming “very materialistic, respecting and conserving the materials of nature through programs of reusal, reduction, recycling and repair to decrease the amount of waste manufactured and disposed of on campus.”

According to that report, sustainability can’t be imposed upon a community. It has to grow from conversations within and outside that community—conversations such as the dialogue I witnessed that morning. But that’s only the first part. Next they “go public." Farrell said for his students, this means “talking to people all over campus (and off campus too) and sharing what we learn. ... It’s practical idealism, and it’s what makes it real.”

Outside of classes and labs, students also learn environmental stewardship “in the cafeteria and the residence halls, in the bathrooms and bookstore, in the computer labs and the power plant, on the roads and in the parking lots, on the lawns and on the natural lands,” the report says, adding, “A college that wants to remain relevant to its students will teach them how to be leaders in the ecological transition of the 21st century.”

ELCA colleges and other faith-based groups are uniquely suited to this task. As Farrell says: “Religion lets us go deep all the time. We’re not bounded by disciplines or science—we’re bounded by mystery and possibility, and religion’s a good way to go in that direction.”

Bruce Benson, St. Olaf’s campus pastor, told me that while ecological sustainability isn’t the gospel, “it is gospel-friendly. It is about care, honor, attentiveness; it is about what the Bible calls ‘steadfast love.’ ” At the end of the day, Benson said, “the work of ecological sustainability may or may not steer [a person] in the direction of new financial resources ... but it will always steer [her] in the way of shalom: God’s hope for the world.”

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