Since 1970, people around the globe have celebrated Earth Day on April 22. The Earth Day website says that first celebration attracted 20 million Americans, and today more than 1 billion persons in 196 countries participate.
A 1970 poster for Earth Day by Walt Kelly showed litter and debris scattered in the Okefenokee Swamp, the home of his lovable comic strip character, the possum Pogo. Surveying the destruction Pogo remarks, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
On Earth Day the following year Kelly drew Pogo with his friend Porkypine. Porkypine and Pogo are in the swamp and Porkypine says, “Ah, Pogo, the beauty of the forest primeval gets me in the heart.” To which Pogo responds, “It gets me in the feet.” In the next frame we see why.
The two are sitting on a log in a swamp filled with garbage and debris. Porkypine moans, “It is hard walking on this stuff.” Pogo, chin on hand, says, “Yep son, we have met the enemy and he is us.”
Nearly 50 years later, Pope Francis, in the encyclical “Laudato Si’,” invites us to dialogue about how we treat our common home and defeat the enemy that is ourselves. He is quite clear about how this common home has become so endangered: The Earth “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”
This way of living must change if we are to be faithful stewards of God’s creation.
Pope Francis challenges all of us to see the whole creation as God does when he writes, “It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected.
Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand.”
This integral ecology “clearly respects its human and social dimensions,” he says. It is “inseparable from the notion of the common good” and requires attention be paid to how our decisions and actions affect those who live in poverty. We are called to stand with these vulnerable populations living today and we must also take into account future generations.
Pope Francis quotes the bishops of Portugal, writing, “The environment is part of a logic of receptivity. It is on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next.”
An integral ecology is marked by this broader vision in which we have an obligation out of justice to hand over a healthy earth and not a polluted swamp like the one Pogo experienced.
Our Holy Father recognizes the complexity of this issue. And he understands how individuals could feel overwhelmed and conclude there is little any one person or small group can accomplish to bring about the changes necessary to clean up the mess we’ve made. But he provides guidance for us.
Ecological citizenship, he writes, is more than just arming ourselves with information, but about forming good habits, “such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.
All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity.”
This Lenten season offers an opportunity to set aside quiet time to read and reflect on this amazing document. It is intended to be life-changing. Closer to home,
I recommend two pastoral letters from our own bishops who pastor in the Appalachian region: “This Land is Home to Me,” issued in 1975 and “At Home in the Web of Life,” published 20 years later.
In the latter, they write, “Therefore, the need for transformation is even greater than before. To some, such transformation may seem impossible. But we continue to believe in the spiritual depth and creativity of the people of Appalachia. We believe that they can find a way to remain at home in the web of life.
Such a path would turn away from the selfish and destructive individualism which so plagues late modern life. Instead it would return to the traditional Catholic teaching about the common good: the common good of all people, the common good of the entire ecosystem, the common good of the whole web of life.”
Father Patrick Delahanty
Retired priest of the
Archdiocese of Louisville