7 Ways You Can Help Save the Planet in 2018

The New Year is a time for resolutions - another chance to help bring about a better world. This week, Paz Artaza-Regan from Catholic Climate Covenant invites you to consider how you can use your time and talents to help care for the planet in 2018. She shares what motivates her to defend God's creation, and then suggests 7 things you can start doing today that'll make a huge difference.

My call to work on environmental justice is rooted in my childhood and in the heartbreaking stories told by those at the forefront of environmental struggles.

A Tale of Two Cities

My childhood memories include Sundays of early morning Mass followed by family picnics on the sandy ocean dunes near Lima, Peru or the central valley near Santiago, Chile. When I moved to the United States, I reveled in the Shenandoah hills and the marshes of the Chesapeake Bay. This beauty was the indelible backdrop of my childhood and adolescence.

Yet woven among these childhood memories are glimpses of poverty and injustice. I had the chance to see the enormity of the world’s despair through the family car’s backseat window, and this formed my call to care for creation and the poor.

I remember that after excursions to the Chesapeake Bay to gather shells and listen to the different sounds of marsh birds, we’d pass through interesting but unfamiliar neighborhoods. I’d glue my face to the car window and take in the sights and sounds of mostly African-American DC; where families and neighbors would congregate on their porches on late summer evenings. The separate worlds of those with air-conditioning and those without, of those able to get in a car and escape the heat, and those who couldn’t, was made real to five-year old me. Wishing to help them, I’d ask my parents, “What can we do?”

I remember that the drives out of Lima to enjoy a Sunday-afternoon on the beach meant catching sight of a teaming mini-citadel of small cardboard and tin-roofed huts. In response to my curiosity, I was told they were mostly migrants, too poor to find any housing in sprawling Lima, and forced to squat on this barren land; that this was a “Pueblo Joven” (Young Town). Enthralled by the sight of hundreds of children busily carrying water buckets, I thought they were playing, only to learn they had no running water and had to carry these buckets of trucked-in water for blocks, mostly up-hill. A few seconds later, as we passed Lima’s municipal landfill, I hurriedly rolled up the window to keep the overwhelming smell out. But I couldn’t keep out the sight of flimsy cardboard houses built on top of and alongside mountains of steaming trash. As the children played amongst the heaps of trash I asked my parents, “What can we do?”.

Years later, these memories propelled me to study how poverty and wealth (or, development) impacts the environment and what we can do to improve creation’s well-being. I landed a job working on environmental justice issues for the faith community and had the opportunity to hear firsthand the stories of people at the forefront of environmental struggles.

Their Pain is My Pain

On a visit to Albuquerque NM, I met Rita Ramirez. As I sat in her home, I immediately noticed the vibrations and noise. Rita explained that this was a constant problem because her house sat under newly built overhead pipes that transferred sawdust from the sawmill to a particleboard company. The entire house, no matter how many times she cleaned, was always coated with dust and soot.  Even more frightening, the city warned Rita not to drink from her groundwater well. This was her only source of water. She had been using it for years to water her vegetable garden and to feed her family. With eyes filled with pain and sadness, she looked at me and said, “I can’t afford to buy bottled water or buy vegetables at the store. I know I’m giving my grandchildren polluted water and feeding them tainted food. What can we do?”

Another time, I met Maria, a young woman whose infant child had recently died. He was born healthy, but within a month of his birth he was in the hospital and diagnosed with “blue baby syndrome”, a condition directly tied to high levels of nitrate in the blood. Maria’s baby died because she bottle-fed him with well water that most likely had been contaminated by jet-fuel leaks from a nearby Airforce base. Maria and her husband were devastated. The base denied her water was contaminated. She couldn’t afford to get her well water tested further. With pleading eyes, she asked me, “What can we do?”

In the 1990’s, I met two young men from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They had some time between meetings and they wished to visit the National Zoo. During their visit, they were excited to see the Great Ape House. As they watched the Mountain Gorillas, tears flowing from their eyes, one said, “Though these gorillas are originally from our homeland, we have never seen one and our children will probably never see one before they go extinct. What can we do?”

Rita’s problem and Maria’s problem and my Congolese friends’ problem are not my problems. But by listening to their stories of struggle and survival, I came to understand that environmental justice is a struggle for all life, and is an essential part of our being a people of God. As Pope Francis teaches us, if we want a better world for our children and grandchildren, we must all dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering. Only then can we can discover what each of us can do about it.

So What Can We Do?
My Top 7 Suggestions

  1. PATIENCE: Do not let the enormity of the world’s troubles paralyze you. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, I recommend this prayer: “Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer: A Step Along the Way
  1. FAITH: Discover what your faith tradition has to say about the environment. Each faith has its own treasure-trove of wisdom that you can incorporate in your prayers and other spiritual practices. Need help finding your faith tradition’s teachings? Here’s a handy guide.
  1. SOLIDARITY: Find out which communities near you are already impacted by environmental issues. Listen to their stories and be open to the wisdom of their experiences. There are a few ways you can see which communities in your area are impacted. You can visit the EPA’s “Environmental Justice” page or you can see if you live near a superfund site.
  1. EDUCATE: There are a lot of different environmental issues –water pollution, extractives industries, climate change, and on and on. Pick one or two subtopics and do a bit of research. You don’t need to be an expert (let the scientists be that) but some foundational knowledge is necessary. And the best part is that it’s really easy to find.
  1. LIFESTYLE: You can make quick and easy changes today that will dramatically reduce your impact on the environment. Think of ways you can “green” daily tasks. Instead of throwing food away, try composting. Instead of Google, try Ecosia. A simpler, environmentally gentler lifestyle is easier to achieve than you might think. There are “list-icles” for this everywhere. I like this one or this one.
  1. ADVOCATE: Governments have a responsibility to make sure that our environment (our air, our water, our soil, etc.) is clean and safe for everyone. Raise your voice in support of these common-sense measures and in support of impacted communities. Did you know the EPA recently repealed rules that would have reduced carbon pollution? Write to the EPA and tell them that you support these common-sense measures for a clean and safe environment.
  1. FRIENDSHIP: The way we live our lives often disconnects from the realities of nature. We don’t interact with nature all that much. Try to “befriend” nature by exploring it more often. Join a community garden (or start one), visit or volunteer at a local park or nature sanctuary, or learn something you didn’t know about the natural world. As St. Francis of Assisi reminds us in his mystical poem “The Canticle of Creation,” all of us – human, animal, and nature – are part of the same family.  

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Weekly Reflections on Justice & Columban Spirituality is produced by the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach. We hope these reflections help to guide you on your own spiritual journey working toward justice, peace, and the care of creation.

Paz Artaza-Regan has been working on environmental issues in the faith community for over 20 years. She is currently the “Program Manager” at Catholic Climate Covenant, which the Columban Center is a partner of. Paz and her husband Richard were married by Columban priest, Fr. Mark Mengel.