A few weeks ago, after reading another thoroughly discouraging article on climate change, I slammed my 20-ounce, single-use plastic bottle of water on the kitchen table and bit back a curse.
The planet is rapidly heating up, with the 20 warmest years on record occurring in the last 22 years alone, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
One million animal and plant species are now at risk for extinction, cautions a new 1,800-page United Nations report.
Our oceans — rising as ice caps melt — are clogged with plastic, at a rate of eight million metric tons per year, the World Economic Forum announced.
And the accelerating environmental damage will likely have profound consequences on human society.
Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty, warns that the world’s poorest will suffer the most due to the effects of emissions, while the rich will use their wealth to “escape overheating, hunger, and conflict.” The resulting inequality would essentially create what Alston calls a “climate apartheid,” one that could threaten social and political stability.
I took a frustrated swig of my water and reflected on how, in my own way, I’ve been a less than trustworthy steward of God’s creation. I drive a pickup truck that averages maybe 15 miles per gallon on a good day, and the console usually holds at least one or two takeout coffees with plastic lids and straws. At home, I’ve got a whole drawer full of the latest hair products (none of which really work) and a cabinet stuffed with household cleaners, all in still more plastic containers.
I use too many paper towels, leave too many lights on and take excessively long showers. I’m afraid to compost, and only recently did I switch to reusable grocery bags.
So is there any hope for me, and for the planet?
Yes. And the Catholic Church is uniquely poised to lead the way.
Historically, Christians haven’t necessarily been known as the greatest champions of the environment. All too often, our focus on the next life has led us to leave the garbage piled up in this one.
But the key to reshaping our future lies in the ability to envision a world where our relationship with and use of nature serves the common good, which the Second Vatican Council defined as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment” (Gaudium et Spes, 26).
Or, more succinctly, the common good is simply “the good of all people and the whole person” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 165).
That’s exactly what Pope Francis stressed with his encyclical “Laudato Si’”, calling on “the whole human family … to seek a sustainable and integral development” in order “to protect our common home” (Laudato Si’, 13).
“We know that things can change,” Pope Francis wrote, and considering there aren’t really any other planets for us to inhabit at the moment, we certainly need to recommit ourselves to caring for this magnificent one.
In the framework of our faith, we are able to see this seemingly impossible task for what it is: a systemic issue that requires a systemic approach. Rather than settling for partial and even contradictory strategies (for example, thinking we can simply recycle may lead us to consume more products), we can address root causes and create lasting solutions.
Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17), so in serving him, we must show that we have used the earth’s resources with prudence, temperance and generosity.
Our faith also reminds us that we live as individuals in communion with others, and that our actions do not take place in a vacuum. If I refuse to conserve energy or water, or if I insist on clogging the landfill with piles of unsustainable consumer goods, someone else suffers. And if I reduce my environmental footprint through self-sacrifice (as Pope Francis has urged), someone else always benefits.
At the same time, we recall that our individual actions alone, however diligent, will not suffice for the task at hand. We must work together to fashion what thought leaders call a “circular economy,” where products are designed and repurposed for the kind of continuous, waste-free use found in nature. Such a system “generates business and economic opportunities” while providing “environmental and societal benefits,” says the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Through a kind of “environmental examen,” we can personally and collectively hold ourselves accountable for our progress in humbly working to heal the scars we have inflicted upon creation, and in sharing its abundance with fairness and wisdom.
And because as Christians we straddle heaven and earth, we can measure aright the eternal impact of our environmental choices, so that generations yet unborn may enjoy a home that is ours for a moment, but a divine gift for all the ages.
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