A Change in Lifestyle
Feb 22, 2018
Last week I mentioned that I had given my classes evaluations to fill out. In the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church class, one struck me. The second last unit in this course is about the environment and Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si.” In answer to the question “what is the most important thing you learned,” the student wrote, “I learned the world is in worse shape than I thought.”
I’m not sure what the student thought before he took this course. Pope Francis wrote this encyclical three years ago, and you don’t hear much about it. Our government is pretending there is nothing wrong and censors any mention of scientific studies on this subject from government websites and publications. The U.S. Bishops have been strangely silent on this matter, which is important not only to Pope Francis but to all the other countries and peoples of the world.
So it’s easy to see how things can actually be worse than you thought.
Consequently, I was surprised to find out this week that things are worse than I thought. I know we have added catalytic converters to automobiles, taken lead out of gasoline, contained chlorofluorocarbons from air conditioning systems, and reduced coal, wood and trash burning, but it seems that the biggest contributor to air pollution now is… us, the consumers of common household products.
Gasoline and diesel exhaust and fuel fumes account for 35% of air pollutants. Industry releases 15%. But the consumer products we use every day make up 38%. These are our cleaning products, shampoo, deodorants, perfume, air fresheners, laundry detergent and bleach, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, glue and paint.
It is unlikely that any law or regulation can solve this problem.
In Laudato Si, Pope Francis writes:
“Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals... This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. Amid this confusion, postmodern humanity has not yet achieved a new self-awareness capable of offering guidance and direction, and this lack of identity is a source of anxiety. We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.
The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes “a seedbed for collective selfishness.” When people become self-centered and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs. So our concern cannot be limited merely to the threat of extreme weather events, but must also extend to the catastrophic consequences of social unrest. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.
Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.
A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. They prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production. When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers. “Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act.” Today, in a word, “the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle.”
So it is up to us, individually, to change the way we live, to change our lifestyle. It is not at all easy, but Lent is a very good time to begin making changes.