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A few small steps toward saving the world

Among the enemies of the environment are ignorance, arrogance and greed. Humans have not yet found an adequate answer to these, but some of our tiny steps have enormous educational value.

In October, for example, representatives of 10 major religions gathered at the United Nations to identify their common ground on ecological issues (NCR, Nov. 6). In November in Buenos Aires, 160 nations finally signed a global warming compliance accord promising to find ways to slash national emissions from fossil fuels. In December, the U.S. bishops will circulate their latest statement on social justice -- “Everyday Christianity: To Hunger and Thirst for Justice” -- which includes the following:

Decisions about the use of capital have moral implications: Are they creating and preserving quality jobs at living wages? Are they building up community through the goods and services they provide? Do policies and decisions reflect respect for human life and dignity, promote peace and preserve God’s creation? While economic returns are important, they should not take precedence over the rights of workers or protection of the environment (emphasis added).

Although there is no concerted action at this point, gradually but inexorably -- mostly through discussion -- environmental awareness is making its way into the general discourse of late 20th-century life in five of the six arenas where it matters most: government, academia, science, religion and the local community.

The absent crucial partners are business-industry-capitalism. Which is not to say that nothing is being done in that area. British Petroleum’s 1997 unilateral decision to reduce its greenhouse emissions created petroleum industry turmoil by putting other oil producers on the spot and helped make the climate for a global warming treaty possible.

Usually, though, very little is seen or heard from business beyond evidence of continuing ecological damage -- from toxic air to depredation of rain forests; from leaky landfills and cattle-farming runoffs to horrific strip-mining and wanton use of diminishing water resources. The trouble with ecological discussion and agreements such as the global warming treaty is that they provide the comforting illusion that something is being done on a grand scale.

That is not so. Yet, Buenos Aires is a first step toward implementing the Kyoto Accord. But the Kyoto Accord, while it binds industrialized countries to sharply reduce “greenhouse” gas emissions over the next 13 years, cannot be enforced and offers no clues as to how these emissions will be curbed.

In this country, the Senate will have to ratify the treaty. Fat chance when industry’s fat-cat lobbyists open up the polluters’ purses to buy political favor. Fat chance when China -- as a developing nation and leading greenhouse gas emitter -- is allowed greater freedom to pollute under the accord than is the United States.

While there will be no miracle of immediate ecological salvation, the increased awareness and commitment to the environment in education, the media, science and local communities are a just reward for small activities on an enormous scale. Think globally, act locally -- as the bumper sticker says -- is, in fact, occurring.

Just one example suffices. The U.S. bishops’ action arm for ecological issues is their 6-year-old Environmental Justice Program, part of the Department of Social Development and World Peace.

Not only do they ensure that the pro-environment sentiment is inserted into episcopal statements, as illustrated above, but they bombard parishes across the land. More than 20,000 “resource kits” have been distributed to U.S. parishes in the past three years, all bearing news of small grant possibilities for local actions.

The consequences of these local actions are not merely that something is encouraged at home but that the entire realm of environmental needs becomes part of local awareness. Through these and thousands of secular community programs -- such as saving the Columbia River on one side of the country and Chesapeake Bay on the other -- the procreation constituency is being built.

The bishops’ Environmental Justice Program grants assist the Ursuline Sisters’ plans to turn their Owensboro, Ky., farm into an environmental and agricultural education center; help Covenant House in Washington rid a neighborhood of a plethora of advertising posters; and encourage Catholic beekeeping in the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va.

Yes, bees. St. Francis would be pleased. There’s yet hope.

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998