A vow to do better for the earth God made

William Patenaude

A few hours before Benedict XVI preached at Australia’s World Youth Day about global ecological crises, I was at a supermarket checkout line in America not using reusable shopping bags.

There I …

A few hours before Benedict XVI preached at Australia’s World Youth Day about global ecological crises, I was at a supermarket checkout line in America not using reusable shopping bags.

There I —a columnist on Catholic ecology — was exiting Shaw’s market clutching 11 plastic shopping bags, a few of them holding only one or two items because I do my own bagging and am not very good at it.

For the record, I do own reusable shopping bags. Good friends and even my mother (who uses them faithfully) have given me plenty. Five are perched right now on the back seat of my Subaru Forrester — which, yes, is an automobile that gets decent mileage for what it is (just short of an SUV), but certainly isn’t a hybrid or a Smart Car (one of those tiny Mercedes-Benz eco-autos that’s about the size of a good riding lawn mower).

One reason I don’t use cloth supermarket bags is I’m forgetful — well, okay, lazy. When I remember I have them, I’m about three steps from the supermarket doors. And by then it’s too late. Maybe it’s a (fallen) guy thing, but when I consider turning back to get them, something overrules everything I know to be right and I won’t walk 30 feet to retrieve what, in case you haven’t noticed, are becoming all the rage.

I confess all this because we need to acknowledge that living a truly environmentally-conscious life (if such a thing is possible) is, frankly, inconvenient — and this is one thing Al Gore got right. In fact, I’m overwhelmed whenever I consider everything I’m supposed to do. But because it’s fun to point out hypocrisy, let’s tally a few of the ways I don’t muster up for the job title “Savior of Planet Earth” – which, thankfully, has already been filled).

Many mornings I forget to leave the house with one of my reusable Dunkin’ Donuts coffee mugs, but I stop for coffee anyway and use their polystyrene cups. I am rarely content with ambient lighting, so I turn on all the lights in my office and house, no matter what their energy efficiency. In the winter I keep an electric heater stationed at any spot where I’ll be immobile for more than 20 seconds. And while I do find it easy to use organic gardening and lawn-care products, every now and then I sneak in a toxic alternative for those special foliage-withering plant diseases that just need to be obliterated.

Naturally not everyone preaching from the Book of Ecology is this lax. Many — and many of these many are women — do everything by the book. Each morning they make their own fair-trade coffee and carry it to the bus stop in washable travel mugs; they collect empty cans and bottles at work, where they won’t be recycled, and bring them home so they can; and yes, they both own and use tote bags for the market, the same ones they’ve been using since Gerald Ford was president.

But while living a life with reduced ecological impact is doable, it is not always what comes to mind. Why? What is it besides laziness that keeps us from seizing whatever the moment might offer to save energy, or reduce waste, or cut down consumption? Why do we think we’re not part of the problem?

When "B16," as the kids call the present Holy Father, speaks about ecological issues he is certainly saying more than the media typically have the time to report. Benedict’s calls for ecological sanity are intertwined with his rejection of moral relativism. His words are profound, making them much more than ecological platitudes. Human consumption, especially in places like America, is dizzying. To the extent that this consumption soars into the red zone because we are “too busy,” forgetful or sluggish are not good excuses.

And so, Your Holiness, I thank you. You’ve reminded me of the message. That said, while I cannot afford a new, more efficient automobile, I can at least use reusable shopping bags. This I’m putting in writing. And I’ll renew my efforts to reduce my consumption of Earth’s resources however I can. As an individual my contributions may not amount to much. But in communion with my sisters and brothers in Christ, I know we’ll make a considerable improvement in how we hand over our corner of creation to today’s deserving young women and men.

William Patenaude is an engineer specializing in environmental regulation and a graduate student of theology at Providence College. He lives in West Warwick and is a parishioner at Sts. Rose and Clement Parish in Warwick.