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We harm our common home in big ways and small


Pope_FrancisWhile I was working as a local reporter, I spent a couple of years covering a city that for decades had hosted big industries—mostly heavy metals and petroleum.
 
This was in the 1960s, when the nation’s great awakening regarding care of the environment had not yet occurred.
 
The industries located in this city emitted all sorts of toxic materials into surface and ground water, into the earth, and
into the atmosphere.
 
Few voices were raised then about examining the nature of these emissions and their effect on ecology, and particularly their effect on human, animal, and vegetable life.
 
One of those voices belonged to a young lawyer who regularly appeared at public meetings to discuss this issue.
 
Far from being taken seriously, he was widely regarded as eccentric and naïve.
 
I was covering a meeting of the city governing body one day when this young man stood up and told the officials that he had recently bought a new car:
 
“I drove the car home from the showroom and parked it in front of my house and, gentlemen, when I went out the next morning, I could write my name in the filth that had accumulated on the hood.”
 
The city attorney, who wasn’t supposed to speak unless he was asked a question, muttered loudly enough for everyone to hear: “Gee, it’s nice to be educated,” and the audience laughed.
 
This vignette represents the state of mind that prevailed in those days when “we”—if I may generalize—did not think about the consequences of what we did in the environment.
 
The young lawyer eventually was vindicated as government and society began to recognize that practices once were taken for granted were damaging air, water, earth, and the health of human beings and other species of life.
 
Industries that once had released substances including sulfur, lead, and mercury into the environment were compelled to adopt controls on their smokestacks and effluent outflows and in general use safer means to dispose of waste.
 
But progress in this field has never caught up with the full dimension of the problem; human activity is still damaging the environment, which is an observable phenomenon, whether or not one wants to blame mankind, wholly or in part, for global warming in particular.
 
Pope Francis made this point in his encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home (Laudato Si’), writing that “our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products.’’
 
This is not still subject to scientific investigation; it’s an observable fact. With respect to the end of the cycle of consumption, it’s an observable fact in American homes and businesses that send as much or more waste to landfills than to recycling centers.
 
Resistance to this and other messages in the encyclical has tended to be expressed on a macro scale, but damage to the air, earth, and water on which we all depend begins with individual human beings.
 
In this regard, Pope Francis cited Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the world’s Orthodox Christian community, who has “called attention to the need for each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet, for ‘inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage,’ we are called to acknowledge ‘our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation.’ ”
 
In the 1950s I worked in my family’s grocery store where we used a very large cardboard barrel, hidden behind a refrigeration unit, to dispose of all sorts of trash including paper, metal, and plastic.
 
One of my chores, when this barrel was filled to the top, was to drag it around the back of the building and burn everything in it.
 
Being a kid and naturally attracted to fire, I enjoyed this part of my job, particularly when the occasional aerosol can that had been thrown into the barrel would explode with a sharp bang.
 
None of us then thought about the smoke and fumes that spread out from that fire; they were out of sight and out of mind.
 
But I hope that if we were operating that store today we would know better and that we would find a safer, if more complex, means of disposing of that trash.
 
If we did not, given what we now know about ecology, how could we escape moral culpability for the outcomes of our cynicism and carelessness?
 
RENEW International is working with the Catholic Climate Covenant and Greenfaith to produce a small-group resource on Pope Francis’ encyclical for parishes, college campuses, and religious communities. For more information, visit www.renewintl.org/renewearth
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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