There may not be a better place than Las Vegas for a thoughtful examination of responsible consumption. The city's neon-lit gambling strip never closes. The city itself, in the middle of a desert, depends on water and power from the dammed-up Colorado River. The area's rapid growth is threatening desert wildlife. When the local newspaper set out recently to find religious groups involved in environmental issues, it came up empty-handed--except for one.
"They kept striking out until they reached us," says the Rev. Gail Collins-Ranadive, interim minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Las Vegas. She was able to tell the reporter that, yes, UUs did care about the environment, that their respect for earth-centered traditions leads them to believe in living responsibly upon the earth, and that many UUs look to nature for first-hand experience of the sacred.
She could also tell the reporter about the 100-member congregation's seminarium program, designed to help participants decide what was important in their lives, then decide how they want to live given the realities of the earth. Further, she told the newspaper, "We're going to explore simple living and how one does that in Las Vegas, where over-consumption and conspicuous consumption are all around us."
The congregation began the program in preparation for calling its first-ever settled minister. It was a matter of serendipity that at General Assembly 1999 in Salt Lake City, delegates selected responsible consumption as a study/action issue and urged congregations to study and act on it in their own communities.
Responsible consumption and sustainable living present a large opportunity, the Unitarian Universalist Association's Commission on Social Witness said in its GA presentation: The United States and Canada are among the most materially wasteful societies in the world--for example, the U.S. is home to 5% of the world's population but is responsible for 40% of global resources consumed.
Since 1999, and earlier in many cases, North American congregations have been studying this issue and putting what they've learned into action. In Las Vegas, the seminarium program, the newspaper article, and the UUA initiative have inspired the congregation, Collins-Ranadive says.
One of the most active is the UU Church of Riverside, California, which is sponsoring courses on ecology and sustainable living, promoting use of nondisposable items at church functions, recycling, promoting Buy Nothing Day and Take Back the Holidays campaigns, publishing a Green Corner newsletter, networking with community groups, and hosting a women's conference on social change and voluntary simplicity.
Organizer Denise Brennan says, "We had nine at our first meeting and from there it just grew. Now we keep each other on track and out of the malls and provide a light at the end of the tunnel." Everywhere she goes, she says, she finds UUs in the center of the responsible consumption movement. "It's so nice to discover that I'm not the only one who feels this way," she says. "I get bolstered by all these little beacons of light that others provide."
The UU Congregation of the Upper Valley in Norwich, Vermont, has so much going on--discussion series, buying recycled paper products, making and encouraging handmade gifts, teaching children about advertising--that it created its own sustainability e-mail group and Web site: www.uucuv.org/sustainability.html. It is also working on becoming a Green Sanctuary through the UUA-affiliated Seventh Principle Project. Action is required in many areas of church life, including energy conservation, waste reduction, recycling, worship, and environmental justice.
A number of congregations are exploring the voluntary simplicity movement. Many adherents join simplicity circles, often in UU congregations.
The First UU Society of Burlington, Vermont, studied voluntary simplicity last fall and will take up deep ecology this spring, says the Rev. Gary Kowalski. The congregation has viewed the documentaries "Affluenza" and "Escape from Affluenza" as lead-ins to discussions. The congregation is also trying to create a services directory encouraging people to buy, shop, and barter locally.