Out of the Birdbath, Into the World

St. Francis is much more than decoration for a garden. His spirituality demands conversion in our hearts and in our world.

St. Francis is much more than decoration for a garden. His spirituality demands conversion in our hearts and in our world.

In honor the the Feast of St. Francis, Franciscan Earth Corps, in collaboration with St. Camillus Church Young Adults and the Franciscan Friars, is hosting an event tomorrow about applying Franciscan spirituality to the ecological crisis. Along with being the event’s emcee, I will be giving a 2-3 minute personal talk about how I have changed something in my life for a greater care of creation. The following is an extended version of that talk.

I’ve mentioned before that the environment is a big issue for me. I feel that it is the most neglected aspect of peace and justice work despite being one of the most pressing issues of our generation. When we sit down and look at the numbers, there’s reason to panic. For instance, many scientists believe that there will be nothing left to fish from the ocean within fifty years. Can you imagine a fishless ocean? What’s even more daunting is that the United States E.P.A. estimated that more resources have been used in the last fifty years than in the rest of human history. These are just two of the many earth-shattering (literally) facts that reveal the grave condition of our earth and the imminent danger our consumption is causing others, especially the poor. Something obviously needs to be done.

Well, the first thing that needs to be done is to determine who’s to blame. The effect is pretty clear, but what, or rather who, is the cause? Many want to point the finger at multinational corporations because of their size, affluence, and history of circumventing environmental laws for the sake of higher profits. While true, multinational corporations are certainly not innocent when it comes to ecological justice, who keeps them in business? We do. Multinational corporations have enormous leverage and financial capabilities because we shop at their stores and buy their products. Not only that, we as consumers and we as American consumers, also use energy in our cars, our homes, our waste, and in our stomachs. If the information from above about the direction we’re heading concerns us, then it’s about time we looked at the problem not as something outside of ourselves, “those evil multinational corporations,” and instead something for which each and every one of us is partially responsible.

When I did some research about my own consumption, I found that the way that I ate as an American is positively unsustainable and that changes needed to be made. When you stop to think about how much grain is needed to produce a cow (6-7 pounds for every one pound of meat), how much carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia cows produce in their lives (more greenhouse gases per day than a car, including 2/3 of all ammonia in the atmosphere), and how much deforestation occurs to make more room for cow pastures, you realize that consuming beef is one of the worst possible things one can do to the environment. Pork, chicken, and wild fish (as opposed to farm-raised) are better in terms of greenhouse gases, but each bring with them a host of other problems.

So what did I do? I tried being a vegetarian. The Franciscans observe an additional Lenten fast prior to Christmas, so I decided to give up meat entirely from the feast of All Saints until Christmas Eve, and then again for the Lenten season before Easter. What I found in that time was that vegetarianism is awful. Seriously. I was hungry all the time, I lost weight, and I struggled to get anyone to take me seriously. Worst of all, I found that I was doing more than I should have been doing. Feeling so overwhelmed with the lack of worldwide progress, I felt that it was my duty to make up for everyone around me. What I actually did was to take on more than I could handle.

Did I give up then, you ask? No. I reevaluated. I identified all of the values that were at stake, i.e. environmental impact, physical health, financial concerns, and the possibility of converting others, and let them sit in tension with each other. What would happen if I just let go of my need to come up with the perfect solution that would change the world and instead just allowed my desire to be authentic to each value play itself out differently each day?

In order for that to happen, I had to accept that I could only control myself. As was a common theme during novitiate, there’s no use worrying about or judging others for what they do because there is nothing I can do to change others. The key for me was to do what I felt I needed to do in order to feel personal integrity.

In the end, I decided on two things: 1) I may eat meat once per day, of an appropriate size (3-4 ounces) and 2) for every meal that I don’t eat meat, I must find a way to replace the protein lost. There have been times since then that I have gone a week without any meat, and there have been other times when I found it best, either for my health or for the sake of those providing the food, that I have broken both of these rules. At this point, the flexibility has actually helped me keep with it because it makes the changes easier to manage.

Ultimately, the point of sharing my diet with you is to say that the ecological justice is important to me, and that I’m willing to change major aspects of my life to affect change (even on a small scale.) The way we eat is not the only way to affect change, nor is it necessarily the most effective. I hope that, if you care about the rate at which we are destroying God’s creation around us, you will take to heart my attempts to reform my daily life and make a change in your own life. Check out this checklist for possible suggestions and see how well you’re already doing. This feast of St. Francis, is there something that you could pledge to do to make a positive impact on our world?

No Pain, No Gain

Sure, it sounds ridiculous, but isn't this what our actions say?

Back in October, I wrote in the post Ecological Justice that the care for the environment is just as important as economics and peace when it comes to upholding justice for all humanity. The effects of pollution, climate change, scarcity of natural resources, deficiency of naturally clean drinking water, and so on, hurt the poor much more significantly than does the rich (as well as being a primary source of conflict in economics and peace). Last week we attended a different workshop in Brentwood, NY, in which the speaker reiterated these same points.

The discouraging part about both of these lectures was that both speakers focused almost entirely on outside forces rather than looking at the effects caused by normal individuals. There’s no doubt that multinational corporations are to blame for a lot of the environmental degradation in the world, but who are the ones actually buying, using, and demanding more? The truth is, if we ever want to see to it that the documents of the Church actually get put into action, it’s going to require the individual consumer like you and me to put our money where our mouths are.

Unfortunately, I’m finding in religious communities and the secular world alike that we’re not yet willing to do that: either we don’t quite understand how drastic the changes need to be, or we’ve become too attached to the present comforts of overindulgence that we’re unwilling to enact them. On one side, sentiments like “little changes make a big difference” merely offer justification for unsustainable lifestyles, while on the other, sentiments like “what I do, good or bad, isn’t going to have much effect” place all responsibility on the world community while failing to recognize oneself as a member of that community. If we’re going to actually enact doctrines of ecological justice, it needs to start with the individual, and the actions need to be serious.

So what am doing, you ask? In conjunction with Lent, I’ve decided to add to my list of environmentally sustainable habits a two major inconveniences as a way to remind myself of the injustices of which I am partly responsible, and to call to mind two things that I take for granted in the “First World.”

The biggest of these is the reduction of meat in my diet. Believe it or not, our dependency on cows and other animals for every meal has resulted in the production of dangerous levels of methane in our air, as well as higher rates of polluted water and increased deforestation. My goal is to reduce the amount of meals containing meat each week to only one or two, so as to bring attention to the issue while still remaining healthy.

The second inconvenience is going to be a drastic reduction in the amount of water I consume in the shower. As environmentally conscience I am, I have to admit that I’m a huge culprit when it comes to extended hot showers. I definitely take for granted the amount of (clean) water I use and the amount of energy needed to make it warm, and consume more than I need for the sake of comfort while others do not have enough for the sake of necessity. In a similar way to the meat reduction, it’s not in my best interest to remove showers completely, but a reduction will help to bring to my attention something I have taken for granted for many years.

In a lot of ways, Lent and ecological action go hand in hand: both begin with an examination of self, particularly how one relates God and others; both encourage sacrifice and penance as a means for reconciliation; both prepare oneself in thought and deed to live rightly in a future soon to come. By means of these two inconveniences, I hope to find myself more rightly oriented to God, others, self, and the created order by the time of Easter, reminding myself all along the way, “No pain, no gain.”

Ecological Justice

You'd never see a sight like this where the rich live, would you?

When Catholics speak about “justice,” we tend to think about things such as the fair treatment of workers, peace, living wages, freedom from enslavement, etc. The images that come to mind are almost exclusively economic and peace related. For many, ecological justice is a secondary concern.

Attending the RFC Philadelphia region workshop today, we were convinced otherwise. Led by Sister Maria DiBello, RSM, and attended by about 30 men and women in religious formation, the workshop was in part a viewing of a documentary by the Pachamama Alliance called “Awakening the Dreamer.” After watching the documentary and listening to her lecture, it’s impossible to see how ecological justice could ever be overlooked.

One of the reasons that it deserves as much attention as the other forms us justice is that it is intimately related to the well-being of humanity and the protection of the poor. For instance, at one point, a woman on the documentary said something to the effect of, “What does it mean to throw something away? There’s no such thing as away. All we’re doing is displacing our waste to another place.” That place is almost always the home of the poor and oppressed. Pollution in the First World causes the destruction of vital resources for the already poverty-stricken Third World, dangerous water and living conditions, and leaves them highly susceptible to erratic fluctuations in climate. Lack of ecological justice, in the form of overconsumption and waste, hurts more than just the polar bears; it directly effects humanity. For a specific example, take a look at the effect of plastic water bottles.

Though the majority of the day was a reiteration of material I studied in college, I found it all to be a great reminder of the great responsibility we have to protect all of God’s creation, and how our mistreatment of it hurts us more than we think. Often times we find ourselves in the First World becoming complacent and entirely ignorant of the world around us. The truth is, what we do effects others in the world around us. When we look at the dire state of our planet in the long run, as well as the horrific effects it is causing in the present day, we can begin to see the “justice” that is needed in the world.