“Honor your father and mother,” is the first part of the Fifth Commandment. In our hasty recollections, we might find ourselves forgetting the second part: “So that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”
This past Sunday was Earth Day, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “How well am I honoring and loving my other mother, Mother Earth?”
I was a Bergen County, New Jersey, Girl Scout in 1970 when the first Earth Day was held. I still have the patch: “Eco Action,” it says, with a very hip, Peter Max style design. It was exciting to be part of a national effort to impact our natural world. And it was overdue: The preceding decade had cast light on the indifference we had been showing to our land and waterways and all the species and systems that comprised them.
At that time, you couldn’t swim in the nearby Hudson or Delaware Rivers. The prior year the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland had caught fire. Many of the Great Lakes were dumping grounds for industrial and other waste. Cities all over the country were struggling with smog. Entire mountaintops were being removed in the Appalachians. The poisoned environments of Love Canal and other toxic waste sites had made the headlines, as had pesticides like DDT, which had thinned raptor eggshells to the point of endangering eagles, falcons and brown pelicans.
What a list, and it barely scratches the surface of what led up to that day in 1970! Small wonder that activists mobilized to raise our consciousness as a nation to act to protect the environment. In the decades that followed, tremendous successes were achieved, but there were also huge setbacks.
To love one’s mother, the woman who raised each of us, is one thing. Mine is approaching 80, and I certainly cherish her more and more as we both age. But loving Mother Earth is a different kind of challenge altogether, particularly to someone like me who loves her conveniences.
Recently, a young man who is like my son pointed out to me the environmental impact of drinking straws. It turns out that we use 500 million of them every day (that’s enough straws to circle the earth 2.5 times). And it takes up to 200 years for a plastic straw to decompose. Yikes.
My husband has had a thing about plastic bottles for a long time. We buy 50 billion bottles of water in the U.S. Each year. Yes. B. Billion. That’s not counting all the other individually portioned plastic bottles we buy. Seventeen million gallons of oil are used to produce the bottles used for water and 80 percent end up in a landfill.
My daughter is concerned about the environmental impact of meat production, and even though she is literally the biggest steak lover I know, she recently became a vegetarian. According to the Worldwatch Institute, 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture, not to mention the massive amounts of land, energy and water that are used.
Hey, I admit it, I’m still eating hamburgers. And though I’ve carried around a straw in my car for a while to honor Steve’s concern, I have been seen grabbing soda at fast-food windows. I’m not perfect. But I am, truly, purposing to do better.
That includes cutting down a bit on our family’s meat consumption. Remembering to bring my water bottle. Handing back the straw or even paying for a soda but using my old cup. Making sure I’m thorough about recycling, including helping my spouse collect plastic bags for the recycling dispenser at Cub. Picking up trash when I do my lake walks. Forgoing a weed free lawn in favor of a cleaner aquifer.
I’m called to do these things by my faith. Pope Francis, who I greatly admire, wrote his first papal encyclical, Laudato Sí, about the environment. In it, he urgently appealed “for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affects us all.”
We need to treat the symptoms, like care for our parks, lakes and rivers, but also look carefully at the root of what produces harm. Being stewards of creation, aware of the common good, calls us to these actions. Together.
Let’s keep celebrating Earth Day. But not just on April 22. Let’s let our love for our Mother Earth be expressed every day, so that we — our families and friends, not to mention the entire human family and all that relies upon this beautiful planet for sustenance — “may live long and that it may go well [for us] in the land the Lord [our] God” has given us.
The Rev. Trish Sullivan Vanni is the pastoral director of Charis Ecumenical Catholic Community in Eden Prairie. She shares this space with Bernard E. Johnson, Beryl Schewe, Rod Anderson, Timothy A. Johnson and Nanette Missaghi. “Spiritually Speaking” appears weekly.