Hypocrites, Culture of Waste and the Environment


–By Shauna Aura Knight

Months ago I wrote here on Pagan Activist, calling out Pagans who used styrofoam and plastic cups during ritual. I also frequently post environmental sustainability topics on my Facebook wall. A lot of people use ad hominem attacks against me in those instances, ie, “How can you talk, you drive a car.” “You can’t say that, your laptop has plastic in it,” etc.

One person even said that, because I use toilet paper, I should not tell people that they should reduce their use of paper products.

Ad hominem is a  logical fallacy, meaning, it attacks the person, rather than their argument. And, though my own use of resources does not invalidate my call for us Pagans to live more sustainably, I think it’s also worth being transparent about my own use of environmental resources, as well as explore some ways we can continue to reduce our use. This includes where I have worked to reduce my environmental footprint, and where I could do better.

If we call ourselves Earth-centered, how do we do that without being hypocrites?

The sad truth is, I do use a lot of resources. And I’m really disheartened by what resources I need to use–even after so much work to live more simply–just to exist.

Waste, Trash, Re-use, Recycle
I’m purely disgusted by how much waste I am throwing out every week. Granted, the 2-3 bins of trash I put out every week are largely debris from clearing out my mom’s house, garage, basement, etc. But it makes me think about how wasteful I still am, and how much more wasteful I’ve been in the past.

And–even after a year of working to clear out this house, I still so often wonder, is there something that I could have done with that waste to re-use it? To repurpose it? To keep it from going into a landfill? I’ve put in hours and hours of research to try and find places I can take things.

Wood scrap/construction scrap–some of this I might have been able to get re-used if we lived in the actual City of Milwaukee, but where my mom’s house is, there’s no place to take this kind of waste. So instead, we filled a 30-yard dumpster with over 5 tons of wood scrap/construction waste. I then spent the following year throwing out 50 pound waste bins every week with more of that.

Thrifting, Ebaying, Craigslisting
Much of the stuff my mom is getting rid of–or, stuff that belonged to past residents of the house–went to thrift stores, or to Craigslist or Ebay. Some furniture I just couldn’t sell or even freecycle, and I ended up having to chop it down and send it to the landfill. Disgusting.

I recall times when I moved in the past, and how many bags of clothes I just threw out, how much furniture I tossed, instead of donating it to a thrift store. I revolted myself at how wasteful I used to be.

Recycling Things That Never got Used
I just finished cleaning out the garage here–which was an epic undertaking as it was a 4-car garage, completely full of crap. Boxes. Tools. Parts, Car parts. Building supplies. A busted car. There’s very little left to get rid of now. All told, I’ll have probably sold 500 or more pounds of metal scrap.

But–what’s the worst of this is–probably half of the stuff that is getting metal scrapped, are tools and parts that could have been used. But, the tools were not kept in good repair. Tool experts have basically said, “Yeah, that’s not worth fixing.” Or, for all the extra car parts (my mom’s ex was an amateur mechanic) these parts could have been used years ago, but are useless now.

I took things out of rotted packaging–brand new, never used–so that they would at least get metal scrapped and reused for materials. But this brings to mind this culture of waste we live in. We buy and buy and buy, and then throw things out when we move.

Fixing Broken Things
Our washing machine broke…again. We just replaced it with a used one from Craigslist, but that didn’t last long. Our fix-it guy says the parts to fix it are more than the washer is worth. So what do we do, just buy another one? Now, this one I could metal scrap, and at least the metal’s getting re-used, but how many washers just end up in a land fill?

My mom’s big LCD TV broke a few months ago. We still have it because she’s holding out hope that someone can fix it, but all the techie folks she talks to say, “Yeah, it’s 8 years old, just get a new one.” So what happens to that TV? I can take it to an electronic recycling event locally, they have them once or twice a year, but what happens to all those other TVs? Do they just get dumped into a landfill? Circuit boards have toxic chemicals, and that just goes right into the land, into the ecological cycle, probably eventually into the water table.

Cardboard & Plastic
Going through all this stuff, I’ve ended up with heaping piles of recyclables. And, only one bin that our local garbage pickup takes every 2 weeks. When I have more, sometimes they will take it if I leave it next to the bin. Sometimes, they will only take what is in the bin. So what do I do with all that extra? Sometimes the neighbors have space in their bins.

But, that probably means they aren’t recycling everything they should. Sometimes we sneak it to the neighboring town’s recycling pickup day.

I took 2 large vanloads of recyclables to the Milwaukee recycling center, which is available to anyone with a Milwaukee driver’s license, when my brother still lived in Milwaukee. But since then, I haven’t been able to get anyone with a Milwaukee driver’s license to help me do that. Some of the boxes end up outside, and they get rained on until I’m sure they aren’t acceptable for recycling any more. It’s very frustrating.

Heat and Electricity
All winter I lived in an unfinished second floor. Unfortunately, I’ve had insulation/weatherization training, so I know what makes insulation work. And, while the rehabbed 2nd floor was partially insulated, the insulation wasn’t complete, nor was there wallboard, which means the system was not working. On a windy day, I could feel the breeze.

I was running space heaters constantly. I looked at that space heater with loathing every single time, knowing how much energy it was drawing, and knowing it was adding to the heat bill as well as wasting resources. If only the house was properly insulated! I used good weatherization technique on the ground floor; caulked the floorboards and window casings, plastic over the windows, towel under the door. But, it’s a drafty house to begin with. There was only so much I could do, and the biggest culprit was that unfinished upstairs.

How much energy did I waste? A lot. And I hated that. I can do things differently in future places I live. And actually, in the past, I’ve lived very energy efficiently. Here, however, there weren’t really too many options.

This is an area where I use more resources than I’d like. Hot water involves heat (gas or electricity) and water, which then goes out into the sewage system. I’m able to reduce my use with a low-flow showerhead. Sometimes I am able to shower just once every other day instead of every day, but for some that’s not really an option. For my part, what’s a challenge for me is keeping warm enough. At Pagan Spirit Gathering, I was able to turn the shower on, get my hair wet, turn the shower off, lather, etc. All told I maybe used 2 minutes of running water, though I was in the shower stall far longer. Much of the time, I find that bathrooms are freezing cold and I need hot water just to not shiver. Part of this is insulation issues, but I am looking for further ways to reduce my use of hot water. I sure would feel better about it if the water at least got used as gray water for the garden.

Living up north of Milwaukee for a year means that every time I travel to Chicago, that’s about 10 gallons of gas. In addition, when I travel and teach, that’s also gas money. And wow, do I wish there was a better way. I drive as little as possible. Even with all of my trips, I basically put 10-12,000 miles on my car every year. I would say 80-90% of my mileage is from when I travel and teach.

I try to make efficient trips, and to get the best mileage I can, but, it’s still a lot of gasoline to use, and I’m adding to the pollution problem.

On the other hand, I see people driving all the time that don’t need to; people sitting in their cars idling them, people driving around just because. I know folks that drive out to a mall several hours away just to go shopping–not to buy anything–but to shop, and to eat lunch. I always plan a number of things to do on even a simple trip so that my route is efficient and I don’t have to drive back and forth and waste gas.

As I get more traveling engagements to teach further away, like in a couple weeks I’ll be driving from Chicago to Ohio and to Central New York for their Pagan Pride day, I’m trying to arrange more teaching engagements along the way so that I’m doing less long-distance driving back and forth, and saving gas. It also is a better use of my time, for that matter.

This year, after massive effort to find freecycle homes for things, I’ve tossed cables and parts and furniture that was otherwise just fine, because I had nothing else I could use it for. I am loathe to even think how many actual, literal tons of waste I have dropped into the waste stream in the past year. More frightening to me still is how much waste that was only rescued from the landfill because of my excruciating work this past year to separate out recyclables.

Toilet Paper, Kleenex, and Napkins
Well, I figured I’d go ahead and address this one. Someone was irate at my suggestion that their use of paper cups was supporting deforestation and thusly, did not act in accordance with the values of being Earth-centered…so much so that they declared that if I used toilet paper, then I, too, was supporting deforestation. And thusly, that I “couldn’t talk” about being more ecologically sustainable.

Well, the truth is, yup. I use toilet paper. And yeah, that does contribute to deforestation. Further, I flush a toilet, which wastes our precious clean water supply, uses energy (treatment plants on both sides) as well as adds to the waste stream. Guilty as charged.

However–I also probably use 1/3 to 1/2 as much toilet paper/kleenex as the average person. Some people’s bathroom habits involve a giant wad of toilet paper every time they use the toilet. You can just be a little more conscientious of how much TP you are using.

Further, I also use washable, re-usable cloths for #1 for a fair amount of my bathroom use. If your reaction to that is, “Eeeew,” think about what our ancestors were doing before the invention of toilet paper. This is something that, even a couple of generations back, would not have seemed out of the ordinary.

Cloth can be washed. For that matter, what I have found works well is taking clothes that I can’t donate to a thrift store, and chopping them up for rags.

Similarly, I don’t really use kleenex, I typically blow my nose in some kind of hanky/washable cloth.

I don’t use napkins either unless it’s absolutely necessary. Like, if I’m out eating with someone and  I splooge barbecue sauce all over my shirt, yeah. Probably going to use a napkin. If I get a little drip of mustard on my finger, I’m not going to waste a napkin on that.

Flushing the Toilet
This also has an environmental impact. Water is pulled from a freshwater source, treated, pumped to your house, then leaves your house and must be treated again, but it is still pumped downstream somewhere. The waste has to go somewhere.

Where the waste needs to go into the ground. Guess what our soil is made out of ? Yes, poop. Dead animals. Dead leaves. Waste makes our soil more fertile. Using all that fresh water is not a good stewarding of resources.

So, when I have the capacity to do so, I compost my own waste. While I haven’t lived anywhere that I can build a composting toilet, which is really required to do effective composting of #2, I have employed a pee bucket. If you’re thinking, eeew, think about what our great grandparents did. It’s really not that bad, and it puts nutrients into the soil, assuming you have at least a yard to dump it. If you don’t, you can also employ the “if it’s yellow let it mellow” method of reducing the number of flushes and water waste.

Things we Don’t Need
Any time I go shopping, I am simply baffled by the amount of crap we don’t need that is being sold. Or even, things we need, but that have excessive packaging. One of the biggest solutions to our environmental problems is to stop buying all that shit. Make choices to buy less things. Think about what happens to that stuff when you’re done with it, when it breaks. Do you really need it? Is it an impulse buy?

No Unsacred Place offers a few items that you really don’t need.  http://nature.pagannewswirecollective.com/2013/07/09/return-of-the-green-shopping-list-stuff-you-dont-need-edition/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+PNCnature+%28No+Unsacred+Place%29

What I’d offer in addition is, look at anything you buy, and before you buy it, think about what you’ll do with it. Think about what you’ll do when it breaks. Will you pay someone to fix it? Will you fix it? Will you throw it out? If it’s electronic equipment, are you willing to take it to electronics recycling? If it’s furniture, can you try to Craigslist or Freecycle it? What happens to that stuff?

Also think about our tendency to want “new” things. Can you buy something used? Or, if you’re shopping around for a new tech toy, can you last another year? Can you wait to get that new Kindle or Laptop? Do you really need something brand new?

Tents, Camping Equipment
Think about what happens to the stuff when you are done with it. Festival-goers are particularly bad about this. This summer a link made the rounds on some Pagan groups about tents and trash left over at the Glastonbury Festival http://www.demotix.com/news/2215139/waste-left-behind-festival-goers-glastonbury-festival/all-media

However–I was one of the last participants to leave Pagan Spirit Gathering this past year, and I noticed piles of trash, tents, tent poles, components from camp kitchens, propane tanks, all left behind. I was sorting out my last recyclables, and the guy picking up the trash said, “Don’t bother, the group did not sort trash well enough so we can’t send any to recycling, it’s all going to trash.


I packed up as many recyclables into my car as I could–liquor bottles, bottled water, beer cases. But I was seriously incensed by this.

Earth-Centered Hypocrites
I’m going to offer a harsh statement here. If you call yourself Earth-centered…or if you turn and face the North in ritual and invoke or honor the Earth, and you are littering like this, if you aren’t sorting your trash and recycling, if you are drinking bottled water and not making any attempt to begin to live more sustainably, you have no business standing in ritual and calling Earth, honoring the Earth. It’s hypocritical.

And that probably pisses you off. And, maybe instead of being ticked off at me, the messenger, you can acknowledge where you might need to do some work to use less resources. For those who called me a hypocrite for calling for the use of less resources, particularly not using styrofoam or plastic cups in a ritual, being a hypocrite would mean I’m not working hard to reduce my use of resources. If you are honestly, sincerely trying, then you’re not a hypocrite. But, we can all do better.

We aren’t perfect. I’m not perfect. I’m using resources too. But, like many others, I am working hard to reduce my use.

It’s hard, and my greatest fear is that it’s not going to have enough of an impact. But I’m going to try my best, because, I am Earth-Centered. I value the Earth and my relationship to it. I consider it a contract, a sacred trust. It’s my job to live in better harmony, to reduce my use of resources, and to help others do the same.


BioShauna2Shauna Aura Knight is an author, artist, ritualist, community builder, activist, and spiritual seeker. She travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and spiritual growth. She’s the published author of books and articles on leadership, ritual facilitation, and personal transformation, as well as an author of fantasy fiction. Her mythic artwork is used for magazines, book covers, and personal shrines. Check out her blog on Pagan leadership and community building or her web site for more information on upcoming classes, rituals, books, and articles.

8 thoughts on “Hypocrites, Culture of Waste and the Environment

  1. RT

    Thank you for speaking up about these concerns. I love your writing. I often feel I am being “greener” and less wasteful by recycling a lot, or donating used items to charity thrift stores. Yet I have been uncomfortably coming to the realization that these systems allow me to hide from the true impact of my wastefulness. For example, I have learned that not everything I think can be recycled actually can be, and also that our local processing center just throws away anything under a certain size. And just last night I was on an elevated train that gave me a clear view of a Goodwill processing yard, where tons of bad donations were piled in dumpsters. It made me stop and ask myself, is everything I donate really in the best condition? Or am I just pushing off the work of throwing “away” onto the people who sort donations?

    While of course I am still pro recycling and donating (and hey, 90% of the non-consumables I buy are from secondhand stores, so I don’t want them to go anywhere!) I think for me they can serve as another safety valve that doesn’t address the real underlying problem of high/increasing consumption. That is something I am very much interested in working on for myself. Of course, I also struggle with shopaholic family members who think love = a pile of gifts, as well as feeling shabby next to friends and coworkers with my small (but much loved) used wardrobe… Anyway, thank you for the thoughtful posts! They are a pleasure to read.

  2. thalassa

    I’m a pragmatist…it nigh on impossible to get products that are ethically made, sustainably sourced, re(cycle/purpose/usa)ble, fairly sold, and reasonably priced. Not many people can afford to do everything they would like to do (or have time, space, know-how, etc).
    But we CAN all do something, or a couple of somethings–things like donating stuff we want to get rid of and buying second hand for things like clothing, books, or small appliances (all of which are actually money saving–donation=tax write off, and second-hand is cheaper).

    Things like committing to use less (or better yet NO) disposable plastics–out of all of the disposable or single use products we use, plastics are the worst…they use oil, are often not recycled (even the recyclable ones that are sent to be recycled), and when they often end up in our food chain and on our beaches (I know, because my kids and I spend plenty of time cleaning people’s plastics up off the beach). Eschewing plastics (particularly disposable plastics) isn’t always simple, can take a significant investment (stainless or glass alternatives is more expensive than plastic-ware), requires time to DIY that many people don’t have (hard to find the time to bake all your own bread when you have a FT or more than one PT job), and can even be downright impossible (I take 3 prescription, must have or you will die meds…that means 3 plastic things every 3 months)…but it is a step that we have tried to take to the best of our ability. Sometimes we can even opt out–we own one kitchen (small) appliance, a blender (although, we are about to get an energy efficient electric percolator and will soon own two, if I can ever find one at the thrift store)…we don’t have a microwave, a toaster, a coffee pot (we use a french press), an electric mixer, etc (and if we felt we needed one, we’d get it used). Go no ‘poo (hey, no more plastic bottles!), start buying bar soap in cardboard boxes or wrapped in plastic, drink your beverages in bottles or cans, put your veggies loose in your cart and not in a produce bag (unless its green beans, in which case, a mesh veggie bag isn’t hard to find), stop buying bottled water…there are tons of things we can do that add up if enough people do them. Write to companies to ask them to change their packaging…

    Even if someone can’t do all of these things, they can still do something. And that something that someone does (that we do) is better than nothing at all!

  3. Sandy Russel

    I gave away my Microwave a few years ago. My husband hasn’t had a raise in 5 years, so we don’t have much spendable income anyway. My favorite way to “fight back” against Corporations who pollute or abuse their workers is to NOT buy anything they produce. I don’t care how cheap their stuff is… I WON’T BUY anything from Walmart or McDonalds (for example). The less you buy, the less you have to throw out. I find it very hard to afford organic meat and produce, but fresh produce is always better than frozen, dried or canned even if it’s not organic. We caulked and sealed the windows the first year in our house… then the next year we refinanced and just got new windows and doors. Still can’t afford new siding. However, we did have plastic cups and paper plates at our barbeque over the weekend. We’re better at some ways of being environmentally conscious and worse at others. Even if we aren’t perfect pagans, we’re surely better than the majority of Americans out there.

  4. Larissa Lee

    My local Goodwill has a special yard that’s open at certain times of the week, for a few hours each time. Inside are things unsellable in Goodwill: pans with scratched bottoms, couches that saw too much TV time, bookstands that tilt to the left. Instead of trashing the items, the Goodwill sells them ridiculously cheap. For example, the scratched pans are all in a giant bin marked 4/$1 and the rickety bookstand will be $5. It works well for everyone, because Goodwill gets to make money AND avoid paying to haul the junk to a dump… poorer people (myself, once upon a time) can get basic necessities to get by until better times… and a little less waste gets created.

    So in response to RT, it depends on where you are and what Goodwill or thrift store is stationed near you. I never throw away anything that someone, somewhere *might* be able to use, but that’s because I know for a fact that my Goodwill has that special junk lot.

  5. Pingback: Paganism and Environmentalism | Blacklight Metaphysics

  6. Corwen

    thank you for writing this, especially the last part. My heart sinks so often at the apparently unaware hypocrisy of many Pagans and Pagan events. I wrote a post about it on my own blog a while ago:

    My favourite hobby horses are people flying to Pagan events (which I kind of cover in that blog post) and the use of paraffin in ritual. So many things I go to have fire labyrinths and blazing circles I get tired of mentioning that maybe conspicuosly burning fossil fuels in ritual isn’t really an Earth -respecting thing to do…

    I don’t take part now in any rituals that use paraffin in this way. People may say this is silly if I drive to thze event, but I think it is different because firstly I have toi drive to get there (the ritual is, lets face it, optional and could have been done another way) and secondly ITS RITUAL FOR GOD(DESS) SAKE!!! This is supposed to be time when our actions have a special symbolic significance. I guess they do in the case of the paraffin fire, but maybe its symbolic in a way of our collective unthinking ignorance.

    BTW its a shame you couldn’t have burnt all that timber waste for fuel in your cold flat, but I guess this wasn’t possible for some reason.

    Keep up the good work.

  7. Shauna Aura knight Post author

    Corwen: Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out. Re: the timber waste, most of it was green-treated wood or had old paint on it, both of which make it toxic/carcinogenic to burn. Also, the upstairs attic had absolutely no capacity for burning things. I also wasn’t expecting to be living there through the winter.

    With paraffin candles, another blogger on Pagan Activist posted about that as well. Here’s the challenge; there aren’t really great options instead. Or rather, it’s the lesser of three evils. Beeswax: probably the most superior option as it’s totally natural, however, it’s expensive. That’s not insurmountable, but I’m leery of contributing to the distress of bees that are already dying. There’s also soy wax, though that sends money to GMO/big agro.

    I’ve often said that living simply is not simple at all. And very often, it’s weighing options for the least of several evils. I know it’s often what gets well-meaning environmentalists to freeze like a deer in the headlights. What do you do when there simply isn’t a good option? For my part, I’m considering which option would have the least impact.

    As for fires in ritual, I’m all right with the occasional campfire/bonfire. I think that, at most retreat centers and outdoor areas, occasional small fires is still a responsible stewarding of resources. What I’m personally not ok with are the bonfires that are bigger than a human being, or even the size of a house. No joke; there’s a festival I attended where they literally built a log cabin/tower about 2 stories high and burned it. I was sickened by the waste.

    The only thing that will ever shift the poisoning of our environment is if we stop using; we have to radically, culturally, completely, reduce our use. And, this is going to have a significant effect on our economy. Economic growth and reducing the load on the environment does not work together. When we reduce our use, the economy will suffer. However, without that, we live in a poisoned future.

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