People think my wife and I are crazy for using cloth diapers. There are many days, too, when I think my wife and I are crazy for using cloth diapers. Honestly, they are a lot of work and my threshold for dealing with “gross” has had to increase tenfold. We have our reasoning, though, and our reasoning has kept us motivated through almost a whole year of using them. People usually think of our choice as environmentally motivated and, at first, this was the case for us. As we researched, we found that experts are divided on the environmental impacts of cloth systems vs. disposables. While this argument is interesting (Google it sometime), I have to admit, it is not the driving factor behind our choice. Other people think our decision was financially motivated. Unlike the environmental impacts, we don’t need experts to weigh in on this argument: our checking account proves that we will save hundreds of dollars over the life of the cloth diapers. And yet, the financial benefit of the cloth diapers is still not the primary motivating factor for us. So what then compels us to the extra effort, the tolerance of “gross,” and the strange looks from family, friends, and strangers alike?
For us, cloth diapers are a tangible answer to what I am starting to call “the culture of disposability” that permeates our country and most likely prevails in much of the developed world. The culture of disposability abounds when personal convenience becomes the primary driving force behind individual decisions, while other factors – like accounting for limited earthly resources, fair wages for workers, and environmental health – do not factor into our decision making processes. Our fast-paced society doesn’t lend to processes of true discernment when making purchases by asking questions such as: how did this get to me, who played a part in its production, and what is the impact my purchase or my garbage might have on the earth? I don’t have time to research and debate every little choice or have time to fix or repurpose every object I own. But should I? Should I at least be thinking more critically about the snowball effect of these small choices that I make primarily by finding the choice that is most convenient for ME?
I have the great privilege of working with college students for a living. If I have noticed anything during the last 12 years of doing this work, I have noticed this: young adults have significant challenges and distinct generational circumstances that make their lives seem more complicated than mine was not that long ago. They are coming of age in a different world. This different world includes the burgeoning culture of disposability. What I fear for them is that a culture of disposability affects not only our consumptive habits (our clothes shopping, our resistance to car-pooling, our endless pursuit of the newest technology), but also our interpersonal habits. I fear that as we teach our children that the diaper or the toy or the year-old smartphone is disposable, so too are we are teaching them that our friendships, our romantic relationships, our affection, our promises, our commitments are disposable as well. On a college campus, nothing is more disposable than your one-night stand partner in the “hook-up” culture. And if we, as a society, keep teaching our children that the earth’s resources can be thrown away (through our compulsive consumption that spawns practices like the removal of mountain-tops for mining, for instance) and that people can be thrown away (through our inhumane labor practices rampant in the global economy, for instance), then we will not teach them love or justice.
I don’t claim to think that choosing cloth diapers makes us saints or makes us defenders of environmental justice or even absolves us as parents who enable the culture of disposability. We have LOTS of room to grow when it comes to building a life that reflects our inner values and honors the God in all things and people. We can hope though. And as parents, maybe that is all we can do? Make decisions we think foster love and justice in our home and then hope like hell that our kids come to appreciate the values underneath those particular decisions. We can hope that the cloth diapers or the hand-me-down clothing or the recycled toys tell the story of respecting how our decisions have ramifications on the world around us. We can hope that personal convenience isn’t the primary motivating factor for our children as they grow older. We can hope that our children will come to understand that fostering love and justice in the world necessitates that they stand firmly opposed to this aspect of the culture of our time, the part of our culture that tries to convince them that things and people and promises are disposable.
Our hopes rest in movements, big and small, that sustain our earth and honor all people. So to you, this digital community of parents fostering justice in the world: What are the big or small ways you hope to teach your children the value of all life in all forms?
Greg Carpinello is the executive director for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, a role he assumed in December of 2019. Greg has been studying at or working for Jesuit institutions and organizations for over 20 years. Originally from Cincinnati, he and his family now live in Portland, Oregon.