By Anoop M. Kurian
Sustainability is based on a simple principle that everything we humans need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.
Therefore, to pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.
Sustainability is a topic of critical interest for many people and organizations, but the movement is not widespread. If we were to follow the message provided in Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, then reconnecting our celebration of spirit with the natural world would become a natural act.
The Laudato Si joins the church’s tradition of Catholic social teaching by bringing the topic of the environment to the forefront and the effects of mankind on the environment. The encyclical also dives into the many philosophical, theological and cultural causes that threaten the relationship of man to nature and man to each other.
Sustainability tries to balance human development and growth with the welfare of the natural world, but as the encyclical points out, it need not be a balancing act. The encyclical describes how the earth is our common home and that all life is a gift from God, so humans who were made in the image of God should be the caretakers of the gifts and not the dominating force. The greatest contribution of the Laudato Si is its overview of the environmental crisis from a religious perspective.
The encyclical wants us to realize that: “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – are sins. For [us] to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God.” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si 8)
Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si is a worldwide wakeup call to help humanity understand the destruction that they are inflicting on the environment and their fellow human beings.
A path towards sustainability can only begin once we recognize that we are a part of nature and that everything is connected. The encyclical educates us on the fact that “the misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si 6). It informs us how the irresponsible behavior of human beings in achieving economic success has led mankind down a path which has gravely damaged the natural environment and fellow citizens of our common home.
The poor and underdeveloped countries have disproportionately been affected by climate change more than anybody else. Take for example the delta nation of Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest nations and also the country most vulnerable to sea-level rises as a result of global warming. Human activities by developed and developing nations have been directly responsible for causing global warming and the end result is displaced families or homes in places such as Bangladesh. Governments, corporations and people in places of power that are obsessed with maximizing profits need to stop and reflect on the trail of environmental destruction that they are leaving behind.
As indicated in the encyclical, “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si 139). Economic growth and profits can still be achieved with environmental sustainability at the forefront. Take for example the new one billion-dollar data center that is being built by Facebook in Fort Worth, Texas. The quarter-million-square-foot facility will be home to thousands of computers and servers which will hold all of our photos, messages and videos that we post every day. But what sets this facility apart from others is Facebook’s implementation of renewable wind energy as the facility’s primary source of energy. The new windmill farm will keep the entire project green. One tech company adopting a green project does not make a huge difference, but what it does is set an example and start a conversation among others to follow in the footsteps of Facebook and start thinking more about the future and the ever-present need for sustainability. This is a good example of a corporate action that follows the path that the encyclical lays out.
There needs to be a definite corporate and cultural change, but there are actions that each one of us can take in the local level in order to reduce our carbon footprint. For instance, University of the Incarnate Word students in need of purchasing backpacks for the new school year can perhaps buy one from Patagonia, since they use recycled goods to make their backpacks.
Students should discontinue purchasing plastic water bottles and instead purchase a Cardinal reusable water bottle which they could refill at the various water-filling stations throughout the UIW campus. Students should also try and purchase nutritious, organic, locally made snacks instead of feeling the need to buy products on campus that have heavy carbon footprints. Other additional steps that could be taken by students are dropping by the wastebasket on your way out of class to check if there are any recyclable materials in them which could be dispensed into an appropriate recycle container, and turning off the classroom lights as you leave the classroom to conserve energy. These small steps are ways of bringing about change starting from the local level and setting an example for others to follow and answer the call of “the spirit” by modeling self-reliance and independence from the corporate culture.
Getting involved in campus activities that emphasize sustainability is another way of bringing about awareness and embodying “the spirit” that the pope discussed; for example, participating in the Headwaters trash collection days, events such as RecycleMania, and Earth Day activities. You should strive to be the change you want to see in the world.
For a long time the Earth was seen as having unlimited resources that mankind could utilize to survive. Preservation, protection and sustainability were afterthoughts. But it is time for mankind to come to the realization that the Earth’s natural resources are not going to last forever. The encyclical lays out a foundation for mankind to follow during the period of environmental crisis. In order for mankind to survive, we must develop alternatives to the natural resources normally used for fuels and make the best use of land we possibly can by adopting local farming.
We also need to be more critical of the technological advancements we think are a necessity for human existence and instead refrain from embracing such advancements even before considering how it will affect our planet. Instead of following the current trend of reduce, reuse, recycle — maybe we should consider refusing. Refuse to buy products that can harm you, your community and the environment. And follow Pope Francis’s advice as mentioned in the encyclical to “return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, [and] to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si 222).
E-mail Kurian, a business economics and finance major from Dallas, at firstname.lastname@example.org