Pope Francis: My Environmental Teacher

Posted by Christopher Heffron on 6/23/16 7:00 AM

Times Square at night
Image: Times Square, Andrea Cavalera.

Before you disregard this blog as some environmental guilt trip, let me confess something upfront: until recently, my carbon footprint was roughly the size of Wisconsin. 

The carbon footprint, for the curious, is the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from the consumption of fossil fuels by an individual, group, or corporation. And trust me: my carbon footprint was huge. It never dawned on me to combine trips. I was habitually unfaithful to recycling. And you could gift wrap the George Washington Bridge with the number of plastic bags I tore through in a month.

Then, earlier this year, I watched a startling documentary called No Impact Man about Colin Beavan, a writer in New York City who, with his wife and child, lived for a year making only a minimal impact on the environment. The Beavans lived with no public transportation or electricity, ate only locally grown food, and composted in their tiny living room. Washing their clothes involved rainwater and homemade detergent. For 12 months, their televisions, laptops, iPods, and smartphones went untouched.

Could I make such a drastic lifestyle change? Not on your life. But the family’s experiment shed a light on how I lived and forced me to face my growing carbon footprint. 


Fast Facts

If you think the crisis is overblown, think again. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2013, Americans generated about 254 million tons of trash and recycled and composted about 87 million tons of this material, equivalent to a 34.3 percent recycling rate. On average, we recycled and composted 1.51 pounds of our individual waste generation of 4.40 pounds per person per day. 

  • Each year almost 900 million trees are cut down for American paper mills.
  • Americans throw away 25 billion Styrofoam cups yearly. Five hundred years from now, the cup you used this morning still will be languishing in a landfill.
  • Earth's average temperature has risen by 1.5°F over the past century, and is projected to rise another 0.5 to 8.6°F over the next hundred years.

Alarming, yes, but only if you believe this to be an unfixable problem. It isn’t. 

Environmental Teaching
Image: Record temperatures recently recorded in Greenland. Numerous ponds are visible in this image of Greenland’s southwest coast, captured by NASA’s Aqua satellite. (Source: NASA EOSDIS)


Start Small

So what’s the answer? Should we all rush out and buy hybrid cars? That’s not cost-efficient for everybody. Bike to work? Distance sometimes forbids it. What we can do is reevaluate our lifestyles, making smaller changes that could offset bigger problems. Here are some relatively pain-free changes: 

Rethink clean. Household cleaners often contain chemicals that are harmful to the environment and our health. So make your own! In a Mason jar, combine vinegar with orange or lemon peels; seal it for 10 days. It’s effective and environmentally safe. 

Shop smart. Invest in reusable grocery bags. Some 380 billion plastic bags are used in the United States every year, and only 2 percent of them are recycled. 

Disconnect. Unplug appliances that are not in use. 

Hydrate differently. Using a water filter affixed to your faucet instead of buying bottled water reduces container waste. 

See the light. Replacing your usual lightbulb with a fluorescent one can save 150 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. 

Chill out. Wash clothes in cold water as often as possible. About 85 percent of the energy used for washing clothes goes to heating the water. 

Be an easy rider. Save gas and lower fuel emissions by carpooling to work with colleagues. 

Stay in the ’hood. Buying your food locally revitalizes the community while reducing long-distance transportation.

The key is this: think smaller. We don’t have to join Greenpeace to save our planet. Sometimes surveying our lifestyles and making simple changes can do a world of good and do good for the world. 


Forward Thinking

The environment has friends in high places. Pope Francis released Laudato si’, a 184-page encyclical in May 2015. In this encyclical, the pope calls for every inhabitant—regardless of background or status—to work together for the survival of our planet. 

“I urgently appeal…for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all,” he wrote. 

In that statement he makes no mention of the political discord this issue has caused, simply because it isn’t a political issue. It’s about leaving the world a better place than we found it. It’s a human issue. 

We need only look to our nation’s past for ways to save our future. The Iroquois Confederacy addressed the importance of sustainable living in the 11th or 12th century when they wrote the following in their “Great Law of Peace”: “We must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”

Our children’s children demand it.


Pope Francis on Caring for Our Common Home

“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord.” In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs." 

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.

This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.


Caring for Creation: Inspiring Words from Pope Francis

Categories: Pope Francis, care for creation, laudato si, environment