Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

The Parable of the Grocery Cart

Friday afternoon I took my two boys (a 2 year old and a 4 year old) to the grocery store to pick up some milk. I found a pretty good parking spot by the side of the building, but just as I started to pull in, I noticed there was one of those big grocery carts shaped like a car (for kids) in the parking space. The carts look like this:



I didn’t mind because it’s the kind of cart my boys like to use. But in order to get into the parking space, I had to park my car at an angle. Then I had to get out, push the cart out of the way (which was difficult since it was really heavy and I had to lift it up onto the sidewalk), get back in my car and re-park.

As I was about to put my kids into the cart, I noticed that the basket was littered with napkins and a few half-eaten ice cream cones. Fortunately, the ice cream hadn’t melted everywhere yet, but it was still a hassle to clean the whole thing up so that I could use the cart.

I wasn’t upset or anything, but it got me thinking about why the person who used the cart before me might have left it in such a mess. Were they perhaps under a lot of stress, therefore failing to notice their children had dropped the ice cream cones in the basket? Were they in such a hurry that they couldn’t spare the time it might have taken to put the cart in the grocery cart stall 5 feet away? Since those child-car grocery carts are in such high demand at this particular store, did they think that the next person would clean it up if they really wanted to the cart? Did they think that it was alright to leave the cart in that messy state because they figured a grocery store employee would eventually clean it up (and, after all, it’s their job to do it any way)? Either way, I can’t help feeling that it was an irresponsible action.

A while ago when I was teaching Gospel Principles lesson #27 – Work and Personal Responsibility in Relief Society, I engaged the class in a discussion about how to find transcendence in the mundane, repetitive task of doing housework. In the course of the discussion, I came to the realization that if you don’t clean something up yourself, somebody else will have to clean it up later. And it’s unfair to force that burden on someone else—especially when it’s a mess that you made yourself. That’s what I wish I could have communicated to the person who had the grocery cart before me.

That’s essentially how I feel about a lot of environmental issues—things like air pollution, species extinction, water waste, etc. It’s unethical for us to make someone else clean up our own messes. It’s unfair to say, “Oh, that’s someone else’s job to fix that” and refuse to do our part or ignore the problem. Even though these are big, complex problems that require a lot of work to solve, we still have a responsibility to work towards a solution as citizens of the world. Even when we did not directly cause the problem ourselves, we owe it to our children and to the future generations who will inherit these problems after we are gone. Because if we don’t clean it up, someone else will have to clean it up for us.

In his last address before his death in 1941, Robert Baden-Powell (who founded the Boy Scouts of America) said: “Leave the world a little better than you found it.” Although Baden-Powell was not a Mormon himself, his statement seems to capture something of the Mormon spirit to me. When Mormons see an opportunity to serve someone else, they take it. When they see a mess that needs to be cleaned up, they clean it. Mormons do a great job of taking responsibility for their actions because they intuitively understand that it’s unethical to make someone else clean up your own mess. They try to make the world better than when they found it. It’s my hope that Mormons can apply this same spirit to the environmental challenges that face our world today.

  • Anonymous says:

    The only danger I see with your analogy is that some people may feel less inclined to clean up the messes they see around them because they lack a sense of culpability. It’s easy to say “It’s not my mess, so I’m not cleaning it up.” I can imagine some people making the argument that it is unfair to the mess-maker for someone else to clean their mess for them, because they don’t learn the lesson about responsibility and hard work. (This argument obviously flies in the face of belief in the atonement.)

    So many of the messes we make are removed from our sight. Our trash is hauled away, our sewage is flushed away, the emissions from our cars kind of float away, and we don’t see the effects of those emissions unless there is an inversion. We don’t have to see our mess and deal with it personally. In addition to recognizing the messes we make, and taking responsibility for minimizing and ameliorating the effects of those messes, we also need to, as humans, take responsibility for the messes that other humans, past and present, have made. I’m not the one who paved my backyard and dumped slag from Geneva Steel in the back, but I am the one who works, slowly and surely, to remediate that land and restore it to productivity.

    • Sprout says:

      I agree that is a potential flaw in the analogy. And I think you are absolutely right that most of us aren’t always fully aware of the short-term or long-term effects that our actions have on our environment (especially our actions as consumers). One of the drawbacks of globalism is that we have become somewhat disconnected from the process through which the goods we consume are produced, distributed, and discarded. We don’t know the people who helped to get that product to us (or away from us) and we don’t know how it has affected them (or their ecosystems). Because these processes are invisible to us, we are largely unconscious of the full effects of our consumer choices. All we see is the effect it has for us personally. I think that finding a way to make that process more transparent is one of the biggest challenge for those of us who sincerely care about earth stewardship issues.

  • Peter Ashcroft says:

    The core question is what responsibility individuals have to the community.  On this, individuals and entire cultures are highly variable for reasons that I don’t understand.  Japan, for example, is just a really immaculate place.  You don’t see litter beside the road, and the contrast with the garage along the typical U.S. road is jarring.  Why is this?

    Some people tend to feel responsibility to the community acutely, habitually asking themselves whether they are leaving a mess or a burden for others who come after them.  Others tend not to feel such responsibility, and blithely leave a trail of wreckage.  Perhaps those wastrels reason that if the supermarket values clean carts, the supermarket will clean them.  Perhaps they reason that if subsequent customers don’t clean the carts as you did, those subsequent customers didn’t really want a cart badly enough.

    I’m not sure Mormons are any more exemplary with respect to community responsibility than anyone else.  I’d like to think they are.  They certainly ought to be, but I think the jury’s still out.

    The Deseret News had a story Saturday of what happens when organizations leave a toxic legacy.  The people who created those messes are long gone, but the effects will be with us for generations.

    • Sprout says:

      Well, I think that Mormons are really good at acting on a local, personal level—which was part of the point I wanted to make in the blog entry. Something that is remarkable about Mormon culture is how quickly the stake-ward structure can be mobilized to bring about powerful changes. For example, a few months ago, a child went missing from one of the wards in our stake (not mine). Within hours of the child’s disappearance, church members from multiple wards in the stake had been organized into search parties. There’s something really incredible about this “Mormon machine,” as I’ve sometimes heard this phenomena called.

      But while Mormons are really good at being accountable for their personal actions and are good at taking care of immediate, local problems, I think they are sometimes short-sighted about problems that do not appear to directly involve them—problems which affect the global community over the long-term. (Mormons are not alone in this, of course. It’s a problem with the nature of human perception more than an issue that is unique to any one religious community.) What I wonder is can the “Mormon machine” be mobilized to solve these kinds of problems? I do hope so.