By Kara Daddario Bown
Boxes tumbled from the stack of cardboard next to the recycling bin. It was trash day, and our pyramid of packages was my family’s attempt to organize, or perhaps more honestly, conceal the number of boxes on our front lawn. I counted the containers from online stores and the contents they once contained: baby diapers and wipes, clothing purchased on a whim, reams of paper for an art project. As I surveyed the stack, a neighbor who I didn’t know well passed by and innocently asked, “Did you just move in?” I cringed when I had to explain that we had lived in our house for six years.
This incident happened a few years after my ecological conversion, and mere months after I read Pope Francis’s Encyclical Laudato Si. Shouldn’t I know by now that “life [is] more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25, NAB) And yet, the cliché proves to be true: old habits are hard to break. When I joined a six-week reading of Laudato Si at my parish last spring, I thought caring for the planet was a largely scientific endeavor. This life-altering Encyclical taught me that it is a moral imperative. Laudato Si reaffirms many truths which Catholics hold in their hearts: that the Earth was created by God and is a precious gift to be cultivated and not exploited. That every person and creature has inherent dignity. Faster isn’t always better and the pace at which we are collectively accelerating is unsustainable. Certain resources are indelible rights which belong to all people, such as access to clean water, unpolluted air, nourishment, and a safe place to live. “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” (Francis, Laudato Si’, 23).
As I read this call from Pope Francis, I thought about the times I tossed food into the waste bin, or mindlessly pulled paper towels from the roll, or added to the clothing lining my closet with the click of a button when many children walk to school without a jacket in the winter. Materialism is not a birthright, and I realized my consumption should never be at the expense of someone else’s well-being.
But how to change? Solving our current ecological crisis can feel overwhelming, and yet God always provides hope. Likewise, Pope Francis offers an antidote for all inhabitants of Earth, Catholic, or not: live simply and humbly. “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this [climate] warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” (Francis, Laudato Si’, 23) In the spirit of this guidance, I want to share a few simple but impactful changes which have helped my family on our journey to care for creation.
· Discover Laudato Si’ – Read Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’. Better yet, read it with others. Grab a friend, a family member, or a group of interested parishioners and read it aloud. Discuss it and reflect on our role as Catholics to protect the Earth. If a reading isn’t possible, consider viewing the film The Letter, produced by the Laudato Si’ Movement.
· Prayer before Purchase – After reading Annie Leonard’s illuminating book The Story of Stuff, I realized there is “no away.” When we throw something into the trash, and it is carted off from our bins once a week, it may leave our home but it doesn’t leave the Earth. Sadly, the things in our wastebin end up in landfills, in the ocean, or in other countries where residents must now contend with our trash. Now before I purchase anything I say a short prayer: “God, do I want this, or do I need this?” These reflective words help me to understand if I am buying something because it fulfills an intrinsic need or if I want something because my ego needs tending. If I decide to make a purchase, I do my homework. Where did the product come from? Who made it? What are the conditions where they live and work? What is the ecological impact of my purchase as far as the product’s life cycle and the environmental cost for it to travel to my home? Borrowing or renting items that you may never need again or making secondhand purchases, are other ways to stave off the amount of new goods infiltrating the planet.
· Dust to Dust – In America, wasted food is the single largest category of material placed in municipal landfills (U.S. Food & Drug Administration, 2022). If we can’t manage to get this extra food into the mouths of those who need it most, the least we can do is compost it and return it back to where it came from. If creating a compost heap sounds intimidating, you can seek out a composting service. I live in a townhome community where my neighbors might have raised an eyebrow if I suddenly started dumping our leftover vegetables in the communal backyard. Instead, I found a service that picks up our food scraps for a small fee or we can bring our compost bucket to a nearby farmer’s market.
· Vital Veggies – I became a vegan a few months ago. This was the hardest change for my carnivorous husband who counts steak and burgers among his favorite foods. But now all our family dinners have vegetables as the star. Adopting a vegan diet is one of the most impactful ways to reduce your environmental impact and cutting out meat and dairy can reduce your carbon footprint from food by 73% (Petter, 2020). But veganism isn’t the only path to responsible eating. Perhaps start with one or two plant-based meals a week. Or try shopping for groceries at a farmer’s market to support the local economy.
· Spiritual Swaps – Many people in the US have already traded in their plastic water bottle for a reusable container or bring tote bags to the grocery store, and these changes have merit. Anything we can do to eliminate the use of plastics or paper goods is something my family contemplates often. One area where we have made a significant change is trying to eliminate our use of paper towels and napkins. We made a one-time investment in cloth napkins and towels for our kitchen, and my toddler especially enjoys selecting which pattern she will use from an assortment of small hand towels we keep in the bathroom. Another way we have reduced the number of tangible products we purchase is when giving gifts. We consciously consider the intangible or experiential gifts we can provide to family and friends. “Stuff” is no replacement for connection and often the gift you can do with or for someone is one which reconnects us. For example, you could purchase a membership to a museum or arboretum to support a non-profit, or offer new parents babysitting for a date night, or run an errand for a neighbor in need.
· Get Involved – While we should do everything that we can to examine how we purchase, recycle, and reuse inside and outside our homes, I believe these changes can only go so far to stave off or reverse additional climate change. As consumers we should always vote with our values, whether that is at the polls or at the store. But large-scale societal change and environmental protections must also come from governments and policies, as well as non-profit and advocacy organizations. Find out what environmental or social justice issues move your spirit and start to act. Maybe you’re an avid gardener who wants to preserve and protect natural lands. Perhaps food and water insecurity in our country and around the world keep you up at night. Or maybe you are tired of advertisers persistently marketing products to children. Discern what issues are most important to you, identify the ways in which you can share your charisms to protect the planet and then get involved!
· Nurturing Nature – We spend a lot of time outside. And one thing I have learned is that toddler story time is even better under the shade of a tall oak tree. For our family it is important to cultivate a respect and love of God’s creation with our daughter. Most weekends, we take time to rest in nature, especially on the Sabbath. We walk at various parks in our area and often stop to notice bugs creeping along the ground or a heron gliding across the sky. We have found the best way for us to connect with nature is to put down our phones and get outside, experiencing, often in awe, God’s abundant beauty.
Francis. Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015), 23.
Leonard, A. (2011). The Story of Stuff. Simon & Schuster.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration (11/21/2022). Food Loss and Waste. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/food/consumers/food-loss-and-waste
Petter, O. (2020, September 24). Veganism is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce our environmental impact, study finds. The Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/veganism-environmental-impact-planet-reduced-plant-based-diet-humans-study-a8378631.html
Kara Daddario Bown is a freelance writer who lives in the Greater Philadelphia Area where she spends as much time as possible enjoying nature with her husband, her curious daughter, and her energetic field spaniel, George. She is a parishioner at Our Mother of Consolation Church in Chestnut Hill, where she is an active volunteer with the Climate Ministry, and she is a proud member of EcoPhilly as well as a member of the Catholic Writers Guild. She is currently training to become a Laudato Si' Animator with The Laudato Si' Movement.