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Going Green: For the Sake of God's Creation
By Mary Jo Dangel
Dioceses, parishes and individuals are finding new ways of fulfilling our moral responsibilities toward creation.

Q U I C K S C A N

Interfaith Activism
Prudence and the Common Good
Addressing Similar Issues
Changing Climate
Considering Consequences
Impacting the Seventh Generation
Saving Our National Symbol
Cash for Trash

The Benedictine sisters of Sacred Heart Monastery in Richardton, North Dakota, slashed their electricity bills by installing two wind turbines.

PHOTO BY SISTER RUTH FOX, COURTESY SACRED HEART MONASTERY

LONG BEFORE the environmental movement began and global warming became a hot topic, God told us in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis that caring for creation is our moral responsibility. But evidence is mounting that we haven’t been doing a very good job, and the results are catching up with us.

Thus, people of faith, including Catholics, are going green because of their religious convictions. Some of them are finding out that saving the earth saves them money, too. This article will present a sampling of such efforts.

For example, “The sisters at the Sacred Heart Monastery in North Dakota slashed their electric bills by installing two wind turbines,” reports National Geographic (August 2005). On their site (www.sacredheartmonastery.com), these Benedictines explain why they are implementing wind energy and raising llamas.

The National Religious Partnership for the Environment’s Web site (www.nrpe.org) says that the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux has worked to prevent erosion of fertile wetlands and loss of marine livelihood to overdevelopment. (This area was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.) The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is a member of this coalition.

More and more parishes are establishing environment committees. Earlier this year, Father Peter Daly wrote in his syndicated column that his parish has established “a committee to look at all aspects of our parish life in relation to the environment,” reported The Catholic Telegraph, Cincinnati’s archdiocesan newspaper. In addition to examining ways to reduce energy consumption and other topics, “They are to address recycling paper and other waste, and explore ways to avoid generating non-biodegradable waste.”

Father Charles Morris, pastor of St. Elizabeth in Wyandotte, Michigan, has been widely interviewed regarding energy-saving measures employed in his parish. In 1997, his parish spent $5,000 on an energy audit and recouped the expense within a year by implementing the audit’s recommendations, reports Catholic News Service (CNS). “We can save money as well as make a sacramental witness of our deepest values, with our care of creation.”

When interviewed on CBS’s Sunday Morning, Father Morris explained that his parish saves about $20,000 a year in utility bills as a result of installing high-efficiency lightbulbs, sun-blocking screens over the church windows, solar panels and a wind turbine.

Interfaith Activism

Father Morris is director of Interfaith Power & Light (IPL) in Michigan, an organization devoted to deepening the connection between ecology and faith. Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis is another one of IPL’s Catholic leaders. In a meeting last year with Minnesota’s Senator Norm Coleman (Rep.), Archbishop Flynn said, “I don’t think people in our community realize the catastrophic effect of global warming,” reports CNS.

The Web site for IPL (www.theregenerationproject.org) offers many suggestions, such as requesting that your preacher address global warming. By improving the energy efficiency of buildings, a parish can become an Energy Star congregation. As individuals, parishioners can conduct home-energy audits, buy energy-efficient appliances and vehicles, and use cars less (walk, ride bikes and use mass transportation more often).

Congregations in 23 states have joined IPL. In California, over 70 Catholic parishes have been involved in IPL, with goals of educating people, changing public policies to mandate reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and requiring the federal automotive fleet to be more fuel-efficient. That’s because fossil fuels, including gasoline, produce carbon dioxide (CO2) when burned, and CO2 contributes to global warming.

The Regeneration Project’s Web site reports that last May, in a historic show of unity, Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in the United States announced a pact to fight global warming together for the sake of creation. This joint statement was delivered to White House and congressional leaders.

“These leaders represent millions of the faithful who see beyond their differences to a shared purpose and common need: protection of life on earth,” says the Rev. Sally Bingham, president of The Regeneration Project’s Interfaith Power & Light Campaign. (Bingham practices what she preaches by walking to work and driving a car that gets 50 mpg.)

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Prudence and the Common Good

In another joint venture, delegates from the National Council of Churches (NCC) testified last June before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, reports CNS. NCC said that, “because of climate change, by the year 2020 some 250 million people will face water scarcity in Africa alone.” NCC has addressed “the growing environmental threat on waters” in the United States, too.

Among the NCC delegates who testified was John Carr, head of the U.S. bishops’ Department of Social Development and World Peace. He said, “We believe our response to global climate change is a sign of our respect for God’s creation and a moral measure of our nation’s leadership and stewardship.”

Carr described three values stressed by the bishops when responding to global climate change: prudence, the common good and the need to stand with poor and vulnerable people. Prudence suggests “that when a problem is serious and worsening, it is better to act now rather than wait until more drastic action is required,” explained Carr. Since the environment is a common good, we all need to work in solidarity.

“In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations,” says the oft-quoted Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Today, the Catholic Coalition for Children and a Safe Environment (CASE) tries to ensure that all children, born and unborn, can grow up in a healthy and safe environment (www.usccb.org/sdwp/ejp). “Making a CASE for Children’s Health” explains that children are “among the most vulnerable and most susceptible to the effects of environmental hazards.” Because they “may be exposed to environmental hazards at an earlier age than adults, even before they are born, they can develop slowly-progressing, environmentally-triggered diseases such as asthma, childhood cancer, mercury and lead poisoning.”

Here are some things you can do to help children:

• Encourage school buses to use biodiesel fuel instead of petroleum diesel, a toxic carcinogen (www.citizensschoolbus.org).

• Discover which chemicals are being released in the area where you live at the Toxic Release Inventory’s Web site (www.epa.gov/tri).

• Teach through your example by leading an environmentally conscious lifestyle.

Regarding poor people, Carr said, “With due respect for former Vice President Gore, the real ‘inconvenient truth’ is that those who contributed least to climate change will be affected the most...and have the least capacity to cope or escape.”

A recent program that has both social and environmental benefits involves the sale of fair-trade palms to churches (cinram.umn.edu/
ecopalms/info.html
). The way these “eco-palms” are collected helps preserve forests and puts more money into the pockets of the people who cut the palms.

It began in 2005, with 20 American churches buying about 5,000 ecopalms, reports The New York Times. Last Palm Sunday, 1,436 American churches distributed 364,000 eco-palm stems. But there’s plenty of room for improvement: U.S. churches use 25 to 35 million palms. Although some Catholic parishes are purchasing eco-palms, Lutheran churches are the biggest buyers, followed by Presbyterians.

Environmental issues are being jointly addressed by religious groups in other countries, too. For example, in London, England, Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Orthodox and Evangelical Churches have developed a guidebook about the importance of protecting the environment and reducing energy consumption, reports CNS. For Creed and Creation: A Simple Guidebook for Running a Greener Church is being distributed free to over 4,000 area churches and is supported by a telephone advice line.

Addressing Similar Issues

The USCCB’s Environmental Justice Program’s Web site (www.usccb.org/sdwp/ejp) includes ways some U.S. dioceses and parishes have addressed common problems. For example, in Oregon and Washington, parishes provided agricultural workers information about pesticides and environmental chemicals.

Parishes in the Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, have greatly reduced the amount of trash they contribute to landfills by recycling seasonal missalettes and directing the funds generated toward future environmental projects.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia participated in the Interfaith Coalition on Energy, which provided workbooks to parish leaders in order to conduct energy audits and implement cost-effective, energy-efficient practices.

The South Bronx vicariate is circulating newsletters (in Spanish and English) to all Catholic parishes and parochial schools about the Campaign for Peace and Quiet. If this sounds like a joke, read about health-related aspects of noise pollution on Noise Free America’s Web site (www.noisefree.org), which says, “The Census Bureau reports that noise is Americans’ top complaint about their neighborhoods and the major reason they wish to move.”

Bishops in the Northeast, Northwest and Far North have issued separate pastorals that focused on issues they have in common. The bishops of the Boston Province released “And God Saw That It Was Good” on October 4, 2000, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, patron of ecology. “Global warming, the loss of fisheries here in our region and across the globe, the destruction and overuse of forests and continuing problems of air and water pollution and human environmental health need our attention,” says the pastoral.

Donating, recycling and composting are some of the ways I reduce the amount of trash I contribute to our local landfill, which is one of the highest elevations in the county where I live.

Worm bins are one way to compost (wormwoman.com). In 2001, a box of worms inspired two Princeton University students to develop a company that could be financially successful while being ecologically and socially responsible.

TerraCycle’s Bottle Brigade pays $.05 to charities for each recyclable 20-oz. plastic bottle. These bottles are then filled with plant food that is made from worm castings (vermicompost). Made from garbage and packed in garbage, TerraCycle plant food “is the first mass-produced consumer product to have a negative environmental footprint,” says its Web site (www.terracycle.net).

Another program that pays schools and organizations for beverage containers to recycle is The Recycle Challenge (www.therecyclechallenge.com), in which many Catholic schools participate.

Thousands of miles away in the Pacific Northwest, U.S. and Canadian bishops released an international pastoral letter in 2001 titled “The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good.” Although travelers to this area usually see “areas of pristine beauty,” the region also contains deteriorated riverbanks, degraded forests, and chemical and radioactive wastes seeping into the rivers, notes the document.

This pastoral also speaks about indigenous people, agriculture, mining and recreational use of the land, as well as “endangerment and possible extinction of the area’s animal and fish species.”

The just distribution of fish and wildlife resources is a controversial topic the Alaskan bishops addressed in 2002 in “A Catholic Perspective on Subsistence: Our Responsibility Toward Alaska’s Bounty and Our Human Family.” This pastoral tackles an escalating problem in our 49th state: “When fish and game are in short supply, who should be first in line to harvest these resources? Those who have a stake include commercial fishermen, native Alaskans, hunters and people who live a subsistence lifestyle” (people who depend on wildlife resources for food, shelter, tools and other basic necessities).

Changing Climate

You are likely to hear more about “climate change” than “global warming” in the future because the former is a broader term that includes temperature, rainfall, ocean currents, farming, forestry and other weather-related conditions.

During the past year, the USCCB sponsored Catholic Conversation on Climate Change Conferences in Alaska, Florida and Ohio. At the June conference in Alaska, Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz said the bishops hoped these hearings would help clarify how Church teaching should influence public policy, reported the Catholic Anchor, the archdiocesan newspaper.

Archbishop Schwietz explained why Anchorage, which had hosted a number of recent meetings on climate change, was having another one: “We are discovering that the concerns for and threats to the poor people in Alaska and around the world are not well represented in these conferences or public-policy debates.” When people of faith examine environmental issues, moral concerns are included.

Thus, many individuals and congregations are changing their lifestyles to reduce their carbon footprints (amount of greenhouse gases produced), switching to renewable energy sources and calling on their elected officials to take leadership roles on climate change.

Considering Consequences

Individuals who feel overwhelmed with too much information and don’t know where to begin renewing the face of God’s earth can start by planting a tree—in their own backyard or beyond. In addition to enhancing landscapes while providing food and shelter for God’s creatures, trees absorb carbon dioxide (CO2). The destruction of forests increases CO2 levels.

Thanks to a donation from Planktos, Inc. and KlimaFa, a reforestation project will plant trees in the Vatican Climate Forest in Hungary, reported CNS in July. The number of trees planted will depend on the Vatican’s 2007 CO2 emissions. This project will make the Vatican “the world’s first carbon-neutral sovereign state.”

No doubt, this announcement would please Pope John Paul II. His warning in The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility is as relevant now as it was on New Year’s Day 1990, when he encouraged us to consider the cause and effect of our actions. “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,” wrote the pope. “We cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations.”

Saving Our National Symbol

Today in the United States, there are over 1,000 endangered species and 300 threatened species. We humans are responsible for the extinction of many of the creatures God created for us. It’s too late to save the passenger pigeon: They were over-hunted and the last one died in 1914. These birds “once constituted 25 to 40 percent of the total bird population of the United States,” says the Smithsonian Institution’s Web site (www.si.edu).

But it looks as though we acted in time to save the bald eagle, our national symbol, which was placed on the endangered species list in 1967. The lingering effects of DDT (a pesticide used extensively during World War II and restricted in this country in the early 1970s) in the food chain resulted in thin-shelled eggs of bald eagles and other birds that collapsed before hatching, reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web site (ecos.fws.gov). This year, for the first time since the mid-1940s, four bald eagle chicks hatched unaided by humans on Catalina Island, California.

“In half a century, we have lost on the order of 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean,” reported “State of the Ocean’s Animals,” an episode of PBS’s Journey to Planet Earth (www.pbs.org/journeytoplanetearth) that aired last March. This loss was blamed on consumption and capture. Giant trawlers sweep up everything in their path with huge nets. Local fishermen suffer because they can’t compete with these “floating fish factories,” which process and freeze the catch on board.

Two recent theatrical films have centered on the environmental challenges of animals at both poles. The Oscar-winning Happy Feet (best animated feature) weaves the plight of Emperor penguins in Antarctica into a humorous tale. The DVD includes a seafood guide “to help conserve natural resources and ensure a healthy environment for future generations” (www.wbenvironmental.com). Arctic Tale is a documentary about the struggles of polar bears and walruses in the North.

Mary Jo Dangel is assistant managing editor of this publication. She loves the great outdoors, especially our national parks. Although she tries to be a good steward of God’s creation, she admits there’s room for improvement.

 


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