WHISKING up an egg, I headed into the bathroom to wash my hair as my family looked on in amusement. I was experimenting using egg for shampoo in an effort to find a more ethical alternative to conventional haircare products: beauty with a conscience and without the plastic.
My journey to live lightly and care for God’s creation is one that I’ve been on all my adult life. It started after reading Whose Earth? by Chris Seaton (Crossway Books) at university, which detailed the biblical case for caring for the world — including that most famous of verses John 3.16, which does not single out human beings, but refers to the whole world: the cosmos. I started to see caring for the planet, as well as for people, as an integral part of my worship of the one who had created it all.
Since then, there have been many twists and turns in the path I have taken; more experiments than I can name, and much laughter among my family as I have walked, deliberately, often falteringly, towards a lifestyle in which I am trying to honour all that God has made.
Does that mean I always get it right, or that there is nothing else I can learn, or do? Definitely not. But I believe that doing something is always better than doing nothing, which is why the motto that I have adopted over the years is: “Many little steps in the right direction”.
WHEN considering what everyday Christian environmentalism has meant for me, it is clear that over the years we have explored and made decisions about all sorts of things — some big, some small, some that were for a season, and others that led to changes that became a normal part of our lives. (Yes, I do still sometimes wash my hair with an egg.)
One of our early most important watershed moments included getting a weekly organic veg box from a local producer, and learning that vegetables came in all sorts of shapes and sizes, covered in earth, and dictated by the seasons. Rather than mindlessly doing a food shop, we started to feel a connection to the wider environment.
Then, for many years, we were part of a pig co-operative, which I started with friends from church — eating our own meat and making our own bacon and sausages — and, as a result, thinking more about animal welfare and what animals are fed.
We stopped being involved in this only when we had reduced our meat consumption so much that, moving towards a plant-based diet (which creates less carbon and methane emissions), it no longer made sense to be involved.
In the energy department, we moved to a provider of 100-per-cent-renewable energy early on, and later were able to install solar panels.
We wanted to ensure that our money was looked after ethically as well; so we switched our bank account and savings to providers who were not investing in fossil fuels and other extractive industries, and my pension is in an ethical fund.
More recently, I got an electric car, which I love. While, of course, it is complicated, in general it is thought to be better to switch to electric rather than keep a petrol/diesel car running, and now there is a good market in second hand EVs. I couldn’t afford to buy my car outright; so I got it on a monthly lease, which makes it doable.
Over the past few years we’ve also reduced the plastic we buy as a household, using Lent as a focus for this, which is where my Plastic Less Living Facebook group came from; a way to invite others to join on this journey.
LEARNING and trying things out within the context of a family has been fun, but also challenging: working out how to live ethically on a low income, and wanting to bring up two girls in a planet-friendly way that doesn’t make them feel weird and stand out from their friends.
Negotiating adverts, fast fashion, Christmas, and social-media pressure is an ongoing challenge, and something to be worked out together rather than imposed. But seeking to live in a way that cares for God’s creation has led us to establish some important principles for the way we do life:
• Get informed. We cannot make a difference to something we don’t know is a problem or don’t understand. Many issues are complex, and it takes time to find out the relevant information and become knowledgeable.
We can learn much online and from others. I have written extensively for adults and children on what I have learnt along the way, including L is for Lifestyle: Christian living that doesn’t cost the earth, and Planet Protectors! 52 ways to look after God’s world, for families and children.
Ethical organisations such as Ethical Consumer can also provide us with the relevant facts to assist us in our decision making. All this can help to develop an “ethical instinct”, allowing us — without always knowing the ins and outs of everything — to discern the kinds of things to look out for, and get a sense for when something bears the hallmarks of being genuinely environmentally friendly.
• Journey with others. I always seek to do things in with other people, in community, learning and making mistakes together rather than go down the path of self-sufficiency, which can lead to isolation and discouragement.
You are far more likely to keep going if you’re in it together with others. This was one of the reasons our pig co-operative worked so well, and this attitude has been applied to all sorts of other things: from having an allotment with friends, to the Plastic Less Living group.
istockDr Valerio was part of a pig co-operative, until she decided to eat a more plant-based diet
Focusing on what one can do rather than what is not possible is really important, too. We all live and operate in different circumstances, and we mustn’t beat ourselves up for the things that we can’t do in our particular situation. We live in a fallen world where we cannot achieve perfection, and feeling guilty disempowers us and makes us less effective.
At the same time, we should not be constrained by what we think we can’t do. Finding solutions that prioritise people and planet is often about being creative and thinking outside the box. I live in a terraced house on a council estate; finding ways to grow my own veg and keep pigs definitely required some imagination.
There is almost always something more we can do, even if small and seemingly insignificant.
• Hold the micro and the macro together. Most of the time there will be incremental changes that we can make in our daily lives, and those things all add up. But every once in a while there are bigger decisions to be made, where we have the opportunity to make a real impact with one important choice — whether that’s a new piece of technology, this year’s summer holiday, or buying a new car or home.
If we take time to think carefully, and weigh up the different factors in these more significant moments, we can make as much difference with one choice as many other small ones put together.
Likewise, as well as the individual decisions we make, it is vitally important that we are calling on our governments, businesses and global institutions to be taking the actions that will bring about the large-scale, systemic change.
The two are connected: our individual decisions not only make a small difference in themselves, but also send messages to governments and businesses that, as citizens and consumers, this is how we want them to behave, too.
We can make that message stronger by telling them what we want, and letting them know when we change. For example, if you change your bank, contact your old bank and tell them why you are leaving them.
• Consider the cost. The assumption is that greener options are available only to those on a certain income, because these choices and products are more expensive than their mainstream counterparts. What I have found is that, while individual ethical products often do cost more (because we are paying the real and fair cost for them), when we begin to reframe our whole lives in this way, living more sustainably costs less overall.
One of the natural behaviour changes is that you buy less in general (reducing our consumption being the most important thing we can do), and eating a less processed, more plant-based diet is not expensive.
With some things, the upfront expense is more, but you spend less thereafter. This applies to all sorts of things, from reusable sanitary products and nappies, to Fairphones and clothes.
Sustainable products are made to last, and so don’t need replacing all the time, which means that not only can you enjoy nicer-quality things, but you can also save a fortune in the long run. This is backed by research that suggests that the Minimum Income Standard, which is the income needed to have an acceptable standard of living in the UK, is reduced when people have a more ecological lifestyle.
THESE are just some of the changes that have emerged, as my lifestyle has adapted to try to live in a way that least damages others, and the wider natural world and that might even help. Instead of being a chore and a bind, the journey of living more lightly has been a joy and a delight.
Of course, I am a child of the consumer age, and I’ve no doubt that that has an impact on me more than I care to admit. Putting God before material wealth is a lifelong battle.
Yet, I hope that the earth and its inhabitants — people, ecosystems, and other creatures — have benefited from these efforts. Alongside that, I have benefited, too, as I have increasingly stepped into the life to which God calls his followers: to care for his precious creation.
Dr Ruth Valerio is global advocacy and influencing director at Tearfund, an environmentalist, theologian, and social activist. She is the author of the books L is for Lifestyle: Christian living that doesn’t cost the earth, published by IVP (revised and updated 2019) at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); and Planet Protectors: 52 ways to look after God’s world, with Paul Kerensa, published by SPCK at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.19), among others.