As wave after wave of poor immigrants pushed their way across the vast American continent, they thought they had discovered a land with unlimited resources. Through hard work and ingenuity, levels of comfort and luxury were gradually created that became the envy of the world.
During this struggle for a better life, people developed attitudes and expectations toward the earth and toward "the good life." We came to view the earth as a depository of resources that we were entitled to exploit at will and as a repository for all our waste. We began to measure an individual’s worth by possessions and consumption and to equate human advancement with an ever-increasing gross national product.
Only recently have we begun to recognize the unintended side effects of our unbridled consumerism on the earth and on ourselves. The earth, immense though it may seem, is revealing the limits of its resources and of its capacity to absorb our garbage. Pollution of the air, water and land, global warming and habitat destruction are shriveling this precious planet into a wasteland. As for ourselves, our single-minded focus on material success and our increasing alienation from the earth and its living things are causing the fullness of life to evaporate, leaving us with shallow lives. We rush toward our next deadline, blind to the awesome beauty of nature.
We are responsible for our own choices, which either worsen or lessen the environmental crisis. How much we consume and waste are moral decisions, matters for thoughtful consideration. The cumulative effects of our individual actions, of our collective selfishness, are proving catastrophic for the well-being of the earth and its creatures.
It is hypocritical to bemoan the ravaging of the earth and push for global environmental reform without converting our personal habits of excessive consumption into habits of careful conservation. Love for the earth does not mean hugging a tree, but rather recycling the foot-and-a-half high bundle of newspapers it takes to save one tree. We all want a healthy environment, but we want other things as well. Living more simply and wisely involves sacrifice and hard choices.
We are all responsible before God for the way we choose to walk the earth. There are many ways to live in closer harmony with the earth. But some of our decisions, some aspects of our life style, have a much greater impact upon the earth than others. As important as it is, for example, to recycle, the following three choices have a much higher impact upon the earth:
Cars and light trucks: The single most important decision we make has to do with the fuel efficiency of the vehicles we drive, with driving lessusing public transportation, car pooling, bicycling and walking. These latter two options are healthful not only for the environment, but for our bodies as well. How ironic and wasteful it is to have people drive a short distance to a gym in order to get a workout! What ever happened to useful exercise?
Meat: Cutting down on our consumption of meat is beneficial for our bodies, the environment and the poor. Raising one pound of red meat requires 20 times the land needed to produce a pound of grain. In too many places, farm lands are being used to feed cattle, to provide beef for the rich, while the poor are left with no land on which to grow food to feed their families.
Energy: We need to reduce our consumption of energy at home by choosing more efficient houses, bulbs and appliances and by using less light and heat. To leave an unneeded light or air conditioner on, or the house or water warmer than they need to be are moral decisions with consequences for the environment.
The hard choices listed above are designed to care better for the earth. The truth is, however, that it is not we who give the earth life, it is the earth and its living systems that give us life. The earth cares for and sustains us. Human arrogance needs to give way to a new humility.
Conversion, fasting and asceticism have always been integral to the spiritual life. The ecological crisis is calling us to convert our life styles, to fast from consuming and wasting. The new asceticism needed today is to live more simply and wisely, to walk more softly upon the earth.
Ronald Stanley, O.P., works as a campus minister at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.