Reduce, reuse, redemption: A first-year’s initiation into sustainable living

When I first stepped onto Calvin’s hyper-green lawns, “sustainability” wasn’t a word in my vocabulary. Did I know the planet was dying? Sure. Had I lain awake at night, contemplating pollution and doom? Absolutely. But what did I think I could do to fix our global crisis? Nothing — short of closing my eyes and praying for change, albeit without much hope. 

Then, during the Calvinian crash course that is QUEST, I found myself in professor Halteman’s “food lecture.” Not just any “food lecture,” though — a veganism food lecture. In the past, vegan and vegetarian friends had informed me that “meat is so bad for the environment” and that they “feel bad for the animals.” I dismissed those remarks as overly conscientious, maybe even too sensitive. But after seeing the grim statistics on methane emissions and factory farming, I found it harder to reach for that burger at Knollcrest. 

As I soon learned, meal choice was only the tip of the iceberg. Some environmentally conscious friends dragged me to a meeting of the Student Sustainability Council. I went rather fearfully. In my mind, the SSC was for people with metal straws and organic, zero-waste lives. My hot showers and styrofoam milkshake cups would condemn me instantly. 

Instead, the Student Sustainability Council turned out to be just that: students who coordinate sustainability efforts on campus. And amazingly, “sustainability” did not only involve cold showers and reusable drinkware. A Christian desire to steward Creation found expression in composting, thrifting, carpooling — and even, sometimes, in teaching. Through the SSC, I met professor Matthew Heun, whose courses integrate engineering and sustainability. 

At first, “sustainable engineering” made me think of green roofs and wind turbines. But professor Heun explained that all engineering requires energy: to build, use, and dispose of products. And engineers’ choices (to use fossil fuels, for example) have consequences beyond making a new bridge or airplane.

I had never considered that engineers planned hallways and water bottles and laptops. Or that, with some creativity, they could lead the charge in reducing energy consumption and waste. The power to save the world was in their hands!

Which is not to say that sustainability comes easy. Professor Heun remarked, “We need to be good stewards, but … stewards of natural resources or stewards of money? … Those things come into tension with each other.” He held out hope for “clean” engineering, though: “I definitely think that engineers can make awesome things that also are good for the planet or take account of… the nonhuman creation. I think that’s a hard road to go down… but I think it is possible, and there are plenty of examples.”

After talking with Heun, I realized that all our vocations, regardless of career, will shape our environment. Whether we become engineers, teachers, nurses or historians, our actions will affect this planet, because we live on it. (Like, duh. But also, that shirt you’re wearing? That didn’t spring from a vacuum. Think about it.)

The power to help our home — God’s creation — lies within our choices. We can make a difference. Yes, this responsibility feels both lighter and heavier than resignation. Yes, it’s hard to limit red meat, or to choose recycled paper, or to push yourself towards more efficient designs. But when we make these choices, we honor God’s world as He created it to be.