Have you ever hit a point in your life when your whole perspective on the world changed? You woke up one morning living your life a certain way and went to bed determined to live differently?
That happened to me four years ago after reading Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’.
I don’t normally read papal letters or documents released by the Vatican. But I was in the process of re-discovering life as a practicing Catholic and I had heard the hype around the environment-focused message from Pope Francis.
What Laudato Si’ really says
When the encyclical came out, a lot of people praised the new pope for being a champion of the environment. (Pope Francis isn’t the first Catholic leader to talk about our duty to care for the planet, though — popes have been talking about this since 1971.)
Indeed, the message of the document includes a call to action to “care for our common home.” And that is compelling enough to remind us to recycle, carpool on occasion, and maybe even invest in a reusable coffee mug — all good things.
But I found something much deeper than that at the heart of Laudato Si’ — something that would change my life forever.
Pope Francis brought to my attention that climate change and environmental deterioration have the biggest impact on the most vulnerable people on the planet. “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest” (Laudato Si’, 48). Here’s why:
The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming. There is also the damage caused by the export of solid waste and toxic liquids to developing countries, and by the pollution produced by companies that operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home. (Laudato Si’, 51)
My eyes were opened. The stakes were raised.
Before that moment, I had always been generally aware that cutting down the rainforest is bad, carpooling is good, and my plastic might accidentally end up strangling a turtle.
This was different. If we didn’t do something, people were going to die — and probably not the people who were doing the damage.
Time for change
One thing that is consistent in Catholic social teaching on all issues is that building a better world doesn’t mean “alluding naively to abstract notions or unattainable ideals,” as Pope Francis has said. I think that this is especially true when it comes to addressing climate change, environmental destruction, and the effects of consumerism, a.k.a. “throwaway culture.”
Are government policies that address the issue of carbon emissions, pollution, and protection of natural resources necessary? Absolutely.
But we cannot wait for authorities to solve the problem, nor is it ethical to wait for laws and regulations to force us into doing the right thing.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reminded me that we need to exercise greater personal responsibility for how our everyday actions affect the Earth and her inhabitants: “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change” (202).
Putting faith into practice
I started researching the biggest contributors to global warming, pollution, and waste. I started making big changes in my lifestyle.
Here are three of the biggest and longest-lasting changes I’ve made:
Switching to a plant-based diet
This was the biggest and most immediate lifestyle change I made after reading Laudato Si’ for the first time. The truth is that what we eat has a huge impact on the climate.
No, I don’t think everyone needs to be vegan. But I do think that cutting back on our consumption of animal products, especially beef, is one of the most realistic and impactful changes we can make to fight climate change. If switching to a fully plant-based diet seems like a big step for you, consider avoiding beef for one or two days a week — a small step is better than not taking one at all.
I felt like I had the willingness, flexibility, and discipline to switch to an entirely plant-based diet, so I did. It was a personal, faith-informed decision that I have never regretted. There were some challenges at first, but honestly, it’s easier than ever to eat and live healthfully and happily as a vegan.
Rejecting a consumerism-influenced throwaway culture
This affects everything from my daily coffee source to the groceries I buy to the clothes I wear. This shift in mindset was actually an unexpected result of my vegan diet. Because I was making such an effort with my food choices (honestly more effort than I needed to — it’s not that hard), I began to become more aware of other choices I was making on a daily basis.
Now we have a word for this: intentional living (see also: slow living, sustainable living, etc.).
Basically, I realized that it made no sense to go all-out in avoiding pizza for the planet if I’m also buying clothes that are made in an unethical factory and are going to end up in the trash in a year. Why decline sushi if my single-use plastics are going to cause harm to ocean ecosystems? How could I talk about becoming aware of the stakes of climate change while also creating pounds of food waste every week?
If I was going to be environmentally “woke,” I needed to do it the right way — not just in my diet.
Putting an end to wishful recycling
Every day I was putting things like grocery bags, coffee cups, pizza boxes, and other single-use items into recycling bins — wishfully thinking that these items can be recycled. Newsflash: they can’t.
I did a lot of research and got a huge wake-up call that all the plastic I was using — under the justification that I could recycle it — was not only non-recyclable but was also contaminating other *actually* recyclable items in the bin. It turns out that it’s better to put non-recyclable plastics in the trash where they belong than to contaminate recyclable items or disrupt the efficiency of a recycling center with the wishful thinking that we’re not being wasteful.
Over time, I have incorporated other changes, too: buying blackout curtains to cut home energy costs; learning to live with minimal air conditioning; investing in reusables like plastic or metal straws, a travel mug, and a water bottle; carpooling, walking, or taking public transportation as much as possible; and participating in community-supported agriculture.
I realize that I still don’t do enough. And I’m not perfect even in these main endeavors. I’ve loosened up on my veganism a bit after marrying a non-vegan. I still order takeout sometimes, knowing my food will come in plastic. I have definitely splurged on clothes instead of heading to the thrift store or asking friends if I can borrow something. I’m no eco-hero, that’s for sure.
But when I make those choices, I’m aware of them. This awareness of the consequences of my actions (and feeling guilty about them when appropriate) is a really important part of intentionally living my spiritual life as a practicing Catholic.
When I live out my Laudato Si-inspired, environmentally conscious lifestyle, my conscience is clear. I know I’m doing the right thing. I believe I am making an impact. And I hope that I am inspiring others to do the same.
Care for the earth is not just an Earth Day slogan, it is a requirement of our faith. We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation. This environmental challenge has fundamental moral and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored. (USCCB, Care for Creation)