After joining Mike on the show, I realized that I didn’t cover half of what I intended, and got overly focused on a few very specific things. Apologies! The intent was to explain why all Catholics are obligated to care for and be stewards of the environment. To that end, I can get pretty engaged without providing enough information—so here’s an attempt to provide some more specific information.
Forget politics for a minute. Just think about your faith. In the beginning, in Genesis, God created all things, and said “it was good.” He created various types of food, animals, materials for shelter, and so forth. Then, he created man in his image and likeness, and charged mankind with the dominion over the earth—“to be fruitful and subdue it.” But God doesn’t really mean dominate the earth, in the battle sense, or the sense of “beating” or “winning” a struggle. Modern understanding and teaching on Genesis is that God provided us with all things we need to sustain us. He did so by creating mankind in his image, to be a benevolent, humble, and wise steward of creation. He did not create us in the image of the devil, to rape, pillage, and destroy the resources he has provided for us. This is critical to understand to begin a journey towards being an environmental steward.
Second, we are charged throughout the Bible to care for the poor. This is most clear in Matthew 25:31-46, where God said, “whatever you did for the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” It’s not just about the poor, though. It’s about your fellow man, and caring for one another.
In that vein, did you know that the vast majority of environmental problems are disproportionately placed upon the poor? This includes water quality problems, air quality problems, being located in the least valuable and most polluted locations of cities and more. Once I became aware of this, it was apparent that I, and we as a church, needed to work on our environmental stewardship. We needed to do more to care for the poor, but to also do more to care for each other by being a better steward of the world all around us.
But what social teachings do we have regarding the environment?
Well, would you believe that in 1989, then Pope John Paul II put together a paper called The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility, in which he said, "Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. . . . [A] new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge. . . . The ecological crisis is a moral issue.”
Following the Pope’s paper, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in 1991 wrote "Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching." In this statement, the USCCB drew attention to the ethical dimensions of the ecological crisis, exploring the link between ecology and poverty and the implications of environmental degradation for human life and dignity. In this day and age, with difficult economic times, with lack of respect for human life, Catholic teachings often focus on the right of each and every person to have the opportunity for a dignified life, and that we each have a moral and ethical obligation to help others towards that end.
More recently, Pope Francis, in his inauguration, said, "I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be 'protectors' of creation, protectors of God's plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment." Pope Francis is said to currently be working on an ecological encyclical, to provide further teaching on the Church’s practices pertaining to our ecosystems and creation.
Further, on the USCCB website, material is available regarding additional environmental issues, including climate change—yes, it’s real.
A theological basis does exist for each and every one of us to care for and be stewards of the environment.
What can each of us do, then?
The common vision of an “environmentalist” is someone who is an activist, out trying to stop some economic activity. But that’s really not accurate. There are many types of environmentally-conscious folks, from those who engage in peaceful protests, to those who simply advocate on behalf of others by speaking with politicians, to those who are normal citizens and simply make wise, ecologically and environmentally responsible decisions on a daily basis. We can all do a great many things, if we only open our eyes to the possibilities. But we must also be willing to accept the faults of our current society. The issues and challenges we face today include water pollution, air pollution, resource depletion, and more. We all need to be vested in the sustainability of humanity and the sustainability of the planet.
The following two lists include some immediate actions we can all take, and some long-term actions we can take. Each of these actions is demonstrably better for the environment, and in being better for the environment, they are better for us as humans and better for the poor as well.
Immediate changes we can take:
•Eat organic and/or locally grown food products. [Why? Organic limits the amount of artificial pesticides and fertilizers needed to grow food, and ideally leads to less of both of those running off fields and polluting local streams, while locally grown food limits the energy needs to get the produce to the market. Plus, you get to know your local farmer!]
•Reduce water and fertilizer use on your lawns. [Why? Watering your lawn less (and at proper times) will reduce the demand on clean water (your hose uses clean drinking water), and using less or not fertilizer and herbicide will allow for cleaner local streams. You can use vinegar to get rid of weeds, if you are really that afraid of them (they are just wildflowers after all), and you can leave your clippings on the lawn for natural fertilizer. Oh, and less fertilizer use means less demand for phosphorus mines around the world that supply the production of synthetic fertilizer.]'
•Replace your lawn with alternatives, or with an edible garden. [If you want to get serious, remove your lawn, and plant native grasses and flowers that require little to no watering, and minimal upkeep through the summer. And if your local home owner’s association or zoning laws require a lawn, get the policies changed. If you want to get even more adventurous, change your yard to an edible garden, full of veggies and herbs and fruit that you can make use of in your kitchen! You can even give these to your neighbors.]
•Go to a real car wash, or use biodegradable car wash liquid. [Why? Actual car washes (as opposed to high school cheerleader squad car washes) are much more efficient with their water use (as in over 50% more efficient), and the wastewater is treated before going into a local stream. Alternatively, washing your car at home results in the dirty water running into the local storm drain, and straight into the local creek—full of all kinds of oils and toxic tire dust. If you prefer to wash your own car, go to a self-service wash facility (water still goes to treatment facility), and make sure you use a biodegradable non-toxic soap.]
•Don’t wash clothes when it’s raining. [Why? In many cities and towns, storm sewers and sanitary sewers are connected to each other. When it rains heavily, storm sewer and sanitary sewer flow can merge and result in untreated wastewater polluting local streams. Yes, this happens in Lexington and in Louisville streams. Gross, right? Well, if you reduce the amount of flow in the sanitary sewer (where washing machine wastewater goes) when it rains, then that decreases the chances of this occurring.]
•Reduce energy use. [Why? Reduced consumption is one of the most significant and easy steps we can take to reducing our power footprint. Adjust your thermostat to be a degree or two warmer in the summer, and a degree or two cooler in the winter. Just be prepared to wear less clothes, or more, depending.]
•Buy a rain barrel—better, yet, buy as many rain barrels as you have downspouts. [Why? All of the impervious surfaces, like rooftops, driveways, roads, and parking lots, have changed the hydrologic systems for local landscapes. Rain barrels allow you to capture the rain from your gutter, and use it to water flowers, vegetables, and your yard. This also prevents rainfall hitting your roof from flowing immediately into a storm drain and into the local creek, thereby reducing potential flooding impacts. If you want to do more, build a rain garden, or even install pervious paving for your driveway and walkways to reduce stormwater runoff.]
•Recycle, reduce, reuse—the three Rs. [Self-explanatory]
•Reduce use of plastics. [Why? In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there is a growing mass called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Currently, it’s roughly the size of TEXAS, and is primarily composed of various sizes of plastic material. Over time, the plastic breaks into smaller pieces, though not really decomposing. The smaller it becomes, the more it gets ingested by fish and other ocean species—and it’s killing them. From now on, make a point to never forget your reusable bags for your trip to the store, because it’s imperative that you do it. And stop with this whole plastic bottle fiasco—it’s just tap water!]
•Drive less, and don’t idle your car for longer than 10 seconds. [Why? Forget climate change—we know that’s a big picture issue. Think locally—increased cars on the road causes air quality problems (Louisville and Lexington both have this issue). Driving more also correlates with poorer overall health. If you drive less, that means your walk, or bike, or take transit more, all of which lead to exercise and better health outcomes. If driving is necessary, whenever possible, try and tie trips together. Oh, and STOP IDLING your car. Idling for longer than 10 seconds in most newer car models is less efficient than simply turning the car off and restarting it. Even better, the air pollution from idling is worse than a moving vehicle or restarting the car. By turning your car off at stop lights, you’ll save yourself money, and improve the air quality.]
•Reduce garbage waste. Create a compost pile for food scraps. [Why? Landfills are a huge footprint on the environment. Food scraps have no business going to a landfill. If you own enough land to have a yard with a lawn, you should be taking your food scraps (and lawn clippings and leaves), and maintaining a compost pile. You can then use the compost for fertilizer in your garden (if you choose to have one). And if you are concerned about little critters, that’s really not a big problem, but you can still get a compost container to contain the scraps.]
•The biggy: eat less meat (especially red meat). [Why? You may have heard, but cows release a lot of methane into the atmosphere, which can temporarily accelerate climate change. But it’s really about a lot more than that. All meat, from pigs to cows to chickens to turkeys, are by and large raised in confined feeding operations. The conditions are pretty disgusting, which has become a particular concern for those who have a passion for humane raising of animals. Even worse, though, these operations produce massive amounts of waste, and quite often, the waste is not managed appropriately. The result can be runoff pollution into local creeks, which can cause fish kills and algae blooms. Additionally, rural residents often raise concerns about animal feeding operations that expel intolerable air pollution, even causing sickness in some. That’s just the beginning, though. We feed cows enough grain to feed 800 million people. It’s far less efficient to use grain to feed cows and then eat the cows than to just use the grain to feed people. Look, I’m not saying be a vegetarian—but we can all eat a little less meat, and in so doing, we could feed more poor around the world, and reduce air and water pollution that affects all of us, but especially the poor.]
•If unable to make any of these changes, then support an organization that works on behalf of the environment, the health of our communities, and/or the poor. Here are just a few, but you may know others.
o Seedleaf [seedleaf.org]
o Bluegrass Conservancy
o Friends of Wolf Run [wolfrunwater.org]
Regional and State-wide Organizations
o Kentucky Waterways Alliance [kwalliance.org]
o East Kentucky Personal Responsibility In a Desirable Environment (PRIDE) [kypride.org/]
o Kentucky Conservation Committee [http://kyconservation.org/?page_id=20]
o Kentucky Association for Environmental Education
o Kentucky Heartwood [http://www.kyheartwood.org]
National and Global Organizations
o Catholic Climate Covenant [http://catholicclimatecovenant.org/]—take the St. Francis Pledge! http://catholicclimatecovenant.org/the-st-francis-pledge/
o Catholic Relief Services [http://www.crs.org/]
• Buy solar panels—or a solar water heater—for your home. [Why? As long as a home is suitable for solar panels, and they are installed properly, then homeowners can significantly reduce their energy bills. Given the rising costs of fossil fuel energy, this is a win for the environment and for a homeowner’s wallet. This is also a win for the poor, who often live around power plants, and would have less emissions that cause health issues for them.]
• Install solar lights or sunlights next time you get a new roof. [Why? Solar lighting features nowadays are very effective at providing natural light. It’s free lighting—you just have to install the features.]
• Invest in more efficient appliances. [Why? This is particularly valuable for water heaters and furnaces, which are vastly more efficient than the previous generation of appliances. Ovens, dishwashers, and refrigerators or also more efficient, though, and can help reduce overall energy demands.]
• Invest in more efficient windows and/or insulation. [Why? One of the best methods for reducing a power footprint is to increase house efficiency through reduced energy loss. This is primarily done through replacing windows and adding/replacing insulation.]
• Continue to learn, and host an educational session in your local parish.
Of course, this isn’t everything. And many of you probably have even better ideas and actions that can be taken, so please share. Thanks for the opportunity to share my faith journey and experience, and I hope it has an impact on the lives of others in the Catholic faith.