“The Pope is a Litterbug.”
Imagine you saw that headline, along with a story about how Pope Francis had been tossing used COVID masks, take-out boxes, and empty beer bottles out some window of the Vatican, and the litter had been piling up on the streets in Rome. Imagine, further, there was a lot of high-quality video of the Pope tossing his trash. And finally, imagine that the Pope, when questioned about all this, admitted to it, offering that he knows he should not be throwing trash into the streets, but also that, look, he is a busy man with a lot on his mind; it is convenient to toss the trash out the window; and his daily bit of debris is hardly going to make a significant difference anyway, so why should he suffer the inconvenience?
A littering Pope Francis might cause you to see “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home [Earth]” in a different light, not to mention the Pope’s recent “Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation” (the “Season of Creation” started September 1 and ends on October 4).
Nevertheless, would he not have a point about his trash not making a significant difference? A while back I wrote a post on how bad the trash was in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky (click here for it). Having recently spent some time in the Pope’s neck of the woods, I can tell you that Rome and its surrounding area can match Louisville when it comes to trash. So can a lot of places. Rome probably beats Louisville when it comes to one particular kind of waste—the kind that involves brown piles from dogs (or, unfortunately, not dogs—not when white paper is there as well). Whether it be along a trail around Lake Albano, or in a small park near St. John Lateran (Giardini di Piazza Dante), or by a historic building in Albano itself, that was a kind of trash that I saw (and smelled) all too often. I cannot imagine what the runoff from a rainstorm must be like, and what is in the local streams and lakes.
So really, what difference would one guy’s take-out wrappers and beer bottles actually make, one way or another? Why should a busy man inconvenience himself with some pointless, symbolic effort at being environmentally holier-than-thou? Broad societal/governmental action on behalf of the environment is what will solve the Rome, or Louisville, trash problem right?—not individual action.
Wrong. Today we hear that the environment is the great issue of our time. Through the burning of fossil fuel, we are pumping “greenhouse” gasses into the Earth’s atmosphere. Venus has an atmosphere loaded with such gasses. These hold heat and cause Venus to be incredibly hot (about 900°F / 480°C). As Earth’s atmosphere changes, Earth heats up. That is climate change: Earth becoming a little bit more like Venus.
This climate change does not show up simply as a broad overall warming, so that everywhere each day is a little warmer than it used to be. It also shows up in things like severe weather: the tornadoes and floods that have torn apart my home state in the last year; the severe heat and drought that Rome was experiencing when I was there in the summer, so that the Roman fountains were shut off.
Thus we hear that we are facing an environmental crisis—an “existential” environmental crisis, even. If so, that would seem to require action on the part of individuals. Yet no one is asking us to stop throwing our trash out the window. Have you heard any campaigns asking people to help tackle environmental problems by creating less trash, using less energy, not tossing trash wherever it is convenient, and simply working to be good stewards of the environment? Indeed, I recently heard a journalist for a major news organization explicitly describe climate change as something individuals can do nothing about.
Yet once upon a time the idea existed that individuals could and should do things to help the environment—and they were asked to do them:
This seems logical. We might be able to tackle climate change over time by broad action to switch to wind power and electric cars, but we can tackle it this very afternoon by flipping switches to “off” and driving our cars less. If there is a serious crisis, it is incumbent on individuals to contribute to the effort to combat the crisis. Their individual actions can help. They can help immediately. And all those individuals together help to build a culture of combatting the crisis that will support broader actions.
The lack of emphasis on individual action regarding the climate crisis today, the seeming emphasis on the inability of individuals to make a difference (and on not asking them to try) is illogical. It seems sure to have the same sort of effect on the idea of an environmental crisis as finding that the author of “Laudato Si” is pitching take-out wrappers into the streets: “Is this real?”
A specific example of “not asking them to try”: Consider the response to increasing gasoline prices this past year. The response was to push for more fuel production. Did you see any talk of also helping people to need less gas—through better transit and carpooling networks, for example? (Surely in our modern age of phones and GPS—the age that created Uber and Lyft—it is possible to devise some really effective methods to empower some great regional carpool networks.) Improving carpools and transit would help people who are hurt by gas prices and would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burning gasoline. Talking exclusively about increasing fossil fuel production, by contrast, seems like another take-out wrapper out the window.
Individuals can make a difference for the planet. A simple, achievable start would be for individuals to stop tossing trash out the window—or dropping it by the way; or not noticing that it accidentally dropped by the way. Likewise regarding responsible management of pet waste.
More than just not putting trash into the environment, individuals can pick trash up, removing it from the environment. That especially helps convey to others that taking care of the environment is important. It also makes a noticeable, immediate difference; half an hour of litter pickup can have a surprising impact.
Some might argue that litter and pet waste is not the cause of climate change. Well, can people care about the environment regarding climate change while making it clear that they don’t really care by dumping garbage into it when it suits them to do so? Consider the guy who throws his bag of fast-food wrappers and foam food clamshells out the window of his car because it is too much of an inconvenience to wait until he reaches a garbage bin (there are all too many such guys); is he really going to worry about climate change?
Another simple thing that individuals can do, and that is more directly climate-related, is to string up a clothes line. Devices that generate heat, like clothes dryers, use a lot of energy. On a dry sunny day, clotheslines are fast. They are cheap. They can be a visible sign that an individual has the environment in mind.
I would love to see leaders encouraging clothesline use:
“Throw the climate a line.”
“Line up against Appalachian flooding.”
“Line up against drought.”
You get the idea.
There are lots of things individuals can do, although perhaps none are so simple as these. But since this is a “churchy” web site I will mention one more, slightly less simple, idea: Reasonably manage the HVAC in your church. If during the weekdays your church has Mass at 7:00 AM daily, and otherwise is unused, then stop heating/cooling it all the time. Set your programmable thermostat to switch the HVAC on at 5:30 AM and off at 8:00 AM weekdays, and the rest of the weekday time have that thermostat set just to keep the pipes from freezing in winter or the candles from going soft in the summer. If you think it costs less or makes the system run less if you keep the temperature constant rather than let it rise and fall, well, study some basic physics. Your HVAC use goes as the average temperature difference between inside and outside, period. So if you only maintain the temperature difference when you need it, you will cut down on your HVAC use, your fossil fuel use—and your utility bill. Try it. Why do the church equivalent of tossing trash (not to mention your collections) out the window?
I am sure that it never so much as crosses Pope Francis’s mind to toss trash out a window. What individuals do for the environment matters. What they do has immediate impact.
I wonder if the Pope has a clothesline? If not, he should. It would set a great example to see some of those white robes fluttering in the Roman breezes (just not too close to that park near St. John Lateran… ugh!).