Let’s stop and think for a minute. Earlier this year, across the
United States, we watched gasoline prices steadily increase, to an average price
of above $4.00 per gallon. That seemed to be the magic price—as gas climbed past
$3.50, people began making lifestyle changes: more walking, carpooling, public transportation
and so on.
Then, as the presidential election came into view, gas prices started dipping. Coincidence?
Perhaps, but it seems certain that $4.00-plus gas will return. Some would even say
that it ought to return, by way of government tax, because it grabbed our
attention. That seems a bit harsh, especially for those with low incomes.
Those of us who remember the oil crisis of the 1970s, though, are witness to the
mistake of recanting on conservation. We should not stop conserving now. What better
time than this month’s feast of St. Francis, patron of the environment, to redouble
These days, responsible use of Earth’s resources has come onto our religious radar.
Many people are recognizing a faith connection between overuse of our resources and
negative effects on the poor first, then the whole human race. Even Pope Benedict
XVI is installing solar panels on Vatican rooftops with the intention of making Vatican
City’s footprint “carbon-neutral.”
“Carbon footprint” is a measure of how much carbon emission one contributes to Earth’s
atmosphere, which in turn, most scientists agree, causes global warming. Carbon-neutral means
that your net contribution is zero. This applies to any consumption of energy, including
our cars. Did you know that each gallon of gas burned releases 20 pounds of carbon
dioxide into the air? According to our government, the average U.S. vehicle emits
6.7 tons of carbon dioxide each year!
In a typical household, vehicles account for just over half of the carbon dioxide
emissions. That’s a number we can shrink.
But it would help us Americans to scratch this even more deeply. What is it about
the car, one of the great contributions of our country to the world, that makes us
tick? Why do we drive?
I say this because I’ve been fasting from my automobile commute in recent months,
riding the bus to work. I’ve noticed, when I jump in the car in the evening for some
errand, a feeling that I’ve been missing something. What’s going on here? Am I alone?
Of course, there are many reasons to drive. Getting from Point A to Point B is the
basic one. But there is a deeper, cultural reason for driving. One could even
argue that, for many Americans, driving has become even a spiritual issue.
Preposterous? Perhaps, but if it’s true in some cases, and we can admit it, we might
be ready to change our driving habits dramatically.
Let me explain. The reason we don’t all drive small, simple cars with multiple passengers
is, at least in part, because cars have been marketed to us for the past two generations
as a “cultural experience.” Car advertising proves that. According to the ads, cars
make us feel glamorous, safe, private, independent, self-sufficient, smart and so
on. These are issues of the heart, not of transportation!
Yet to whom are we supposed to turn to feed a true sense of ourselves? Any Catholic
knows the answer. Maybe it’s time that we reflected more deeply on the connection
between who we say we are and how we are acting.
Consider these tips for gas-saving conservation. They’re out there in lots of places;
these are from a government-sponsored Web site, www.fueleconomy.gov,
a relatively balanced site. Gasoline for driving, of course, isn’t the whole problem,
but it’s a great starting point. Some practical tips:
1. Stop aggressive driving, such as fast starts and stops, especially on the highway,
where it can cut consumption by a third.
2. Observe speed limits. Keeping it below 60 miles per hour will cut consumption
3. Remove excess weight. How many of us have heavy items in the trunk?
4. Avoid excessive idling.
5. Use cruise control.
6. Keep your car well-maintained—cars out of maintenance use more gas.
7. Plan and combine trips.
8. Choose a more fuel-efficient vehicle.
This list of mild, but helpful, steps goes on. But, better yet, you’ll save even
more gas when you leave the car parked at home whenever possible. Of course, many
people depend upon cars for essential transportation. But—if you can—ride a bike,
take the bus, walk, carpool or eliminate trips.
Let’s face it: It’s time we all became better educated about gas consumption. And
it’s time we made a far stronger connection between our gas consumption and our faith
A good starting point for that is a new effort by several Catholic organizations,
including our bishops’
conference and the Franciscan Action Network, at the Web site www.CatholicsAndClimateChange.org.
This fledgling effort helps people recognize the connection between our luxurious
lifestyles and the damage we do to the other peoples of the world.
It is, after all, the poor of the world who will suffer most from the wasteful lifestyles
of the rest of us. What better way to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis than
to take responsible action now!.—J.F.