On a hot summer afternoon, a brother Jesuit and I heaved one last bag full of clothes into the back of our minivan to make our annual donation to the local Goodwill. As I drove the minivan loaded with bags and boxes full of clothes, shoes, suitcases, and household items, I wondered how we accumulated a minivan full of unwanted and unnecessary things in our house. Granted, we were a large community of thirty men, but how did we end up with a minivan full of things in reasonably good condition for which we had no further use?
Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si’, decries our consumerist behavior that leads to a ‘throwaway’ culture. Perhaps when we donate things to Goodwill, we think that we are not throwing away things, but are donating them to a good cause. However, it is well known that a large portion of things donated to Goodwill and other thrift stores ends up in landfills or is shipped overseas at great environmental and social costs.. We need to realize that donating to Goodwill does not absolve us from the sin of over-consumption. Seen another way, if we save money by purchasing fewer things, we can directly donate the money to charities that assist the marginalized.
In the same vein, recycling is not a solution to our trash problem. A majority of the plastic that we dutifully put into the recycling bin is sent to landfills or dumped in the oceans. Furthermore, recycling metal and glass is an energy-intensive process that adds to our overall carbon footprint.
Consequently, instead of feeling virtuous, we need to feel a sense of contrition when we carefully place things in donation or recycling bins. We can reflect on why we need to recycle or donate items in the first place.
The conservationists remind us of the 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. We have to remember that the order of the 3 R’s is important as well. There is no substitute for reducing our consumption if we are to care for creation. Reducing our consumption will mean that we will have fewer things to donate and recycle.
Before we click ‘Buy’ on Amazon or before we go on our next shopping spree, we can ask ourselves whether we need the things we wish to buy. Just as binge eating is usually a way to assuage other emotions such as boredom or stress, compulsive shopping is another way people try to evade these emotions. When we are bored, we can ask how our Christian tradition can help us use our leisure time in ways that are honorable to God. For instance, when we desire to go shopping to manage our stress, we can listen to music or take a walk in a park with a friend. Or, when we feel pressured to keep up with the Joneses next door, we can meditate on St. Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation to help us pray about the purpose of our lives. When we think about our needs and wants, we need to discern how our possessions and consumption habits help us live according to God’s hopes for us.
On a recent backpacking trip in the mountains, I was amazed by how little I needed. I could for days with only a backpack full of things. I had a lot more time to be with people, and to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation when my life was free of clutter. Backpacking had forced me to simplify my life as I had to shoulder the burden of every little thing I brought along. Can we imagine the earth shouldering the burden of our consumption habits? Perhaps, we would pack lightly if we experienced the burden the earth carries to support our consumption habits.
If reducing our consumption is a primary pathway to caring for creation, recycling can be seen as a backup option when consumption is unavoidable. We need to treat recycling as a last resort, one small step above sending things to the landfill. Recycling plastic is a lie put forth by the oil industry to assuage our guilt of generating trash. Less than 10% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. If we were aware of this fact, we would hesitate to use bottled water, or disposable cups, or individual serving sizes of yogurt. Going zero waste may be an impossible task. However, reducing our waste is easily within reach and reason.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius has a meditation in which he invites us to imagine God looking upon the world as humans live their lives full of joys and sorrows. Perhaps, we can use a similar contemplation to see the effects of our throwaway habits. In our mind’s eyes, we can imagine the trash and recycling in the landfills and the oceans, and we could see the fish and the birds choking on our trash. We could imagine the pollution from the factories and the mines that produce the things that we throw away without a second thought. We need to take the time to become aware of the effects of our consumption habits on the natural world.
Let the awareness of our ecological footprint move us to pray for further insight into our consumption habits and for inspiration to change our lives. When we see the world as a gift from God, we will see our throwaway culture that hides behind thrift store donations and overflowing recycling bins as an ungrateful response to this gift. We can ask God to grant us the wisdom to live in greater harmony with the beautiful world that God has gifted to us.
The next time we are shopping online, before we click on ‘Buy’, we can ask ourselves how long we will use the thing before it will be donated or trashed. We can ask God for the strength to take a stand against the consumerist culture and close the shopping tab. Then we will have saved some money, reduced our trash, and walked a little more lightly on this fragile earth.