‘Caring for Our Common Home’ in the Northwoods

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Environmental Services Specialist Jennifer Barton stands by the Northwest Cleansweep truck. It is part of a program to collect hazardous wastes from a 10-county radium in northwest Wisconsin that started in 1995. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff
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Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part article reflecting on Pope Francis’s encyclical “Laudato Si” – On Care for our Common Home – and drawing on the professional experience of one local voice working in the environmental services industry. Part one covered excessive consumerism and what the pope calls the “throwaway culture.”

Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si” calls to care for creation, rooted in right relationship with God, others and oneself. Francis summarizes in paragraph 97, “Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God.”

The pope calls to awareness and action in paragraph 202: “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life.”

Environmental Services Specialist Jen Barton brought attention to the lack of awareness with which many people leave their garbage bin at the end of the driveway each week. It disappears from immediate sight, but ends up in mounting landfills, with long-term air and groundwater pollution effects.

Some see burning garbage as a viable alternative, something Barton says hurts to think about given its serious dangers. She referenced open burning resources available on the Wisconsin DNR website and echoed concerns of the pollutants released into the air.

“It’s crazy that people have not made the connection that this isn’t your grandfather’s garbage,” she said referring to ever-changing Styrofoam, plastics and packaging. Barton clarified that burn barrels used to dispose of one’s personal garbage do not burn with “high enough temperatures to have total combustion.

“So you have these half combusted chemicals, carcinogens and stuff floating around in the air – that’s not fair to other people,” she said.

Barton hopes people would take a step back from the politically charged topic of environmental regulations and focus on the moral responsibility. She has experienced pushback in this regard – resistance to change and the prevalence of self-sufficiency.

Barton was moved and encouraged by Pope Francis’ acknowledgement in paragraph 209 that, “an awareness of the gravity of today’s cultural and ecological crisis must be translated into new habits.” He calls this an “educational challenge,” which Barton wholeheartedly agrees with.

This educational challenge, according to the pope, seeks to establish “harmony within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God.” (Paragraph 210)

In the environmental articles she writes, Barton proposes new habits, starting with actions that heighten awareness such as carrying a bag with the garbage you produce throughout the day; moving to habits like ride-sharing, walking to work when possible; and exchanging the use of plastic water bottles with reusable ones. New habits also include buying local to avoid the environmental impact of packaging and shipping. Calling out free shipping as a myth, Barton challenges consumers to pay attention and group shipments whenever possible from online sales giants.

Calling this a “full-circle thought process,” Barton identifies with Pope Francis’ assessment of the role faith and spirituality can play in both caring for the environment and in cultivating a sober and satisfying life, founded on being at peace with oneself.

In paragraph 200, the pope declares: “Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world. If humanity loses its compass, we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices, and to treat others well. Believers themselves must constantly feel challenged to live in a way consonant with their faith and not to contradict it by their actions.”

In Barton’s words, “So much comes down to effort and commitment – how does that speak to what our priorities are?” She said this goes beyond habits, to virtues that include the motivation to “continue through the hard part” of forming new habits. She said Francis is “hitting it right on” with his words about these underlying convictions.

“The biggest obstacle is definitely the extra effort required,” Barton said. She does not deny this personal responsibility requires extra education, time and effort, especially in a rural area where fewer facilities are available.

Barton related to Pope Francis’s writing in paragraph 226; he speaks of “an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.” The pontiff continues, “(Jesus) was completely present to everyone and everything, and in this way he showed us the way to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers.”

Sharing her own need for daily quiet time to maintain an “inside out” approach to life and work, Barton appreciated the pope’s call “to uncover God’s presence around us.” He ties together the ability to admire something beautiful, contemplate what God teaches through creation and, where those are lacking, the consequential objectifying use and abuse of people and things.

She mourns the general loss of valuing time spent in nature. “That’s a big thing. I did a lot of outside, quiet, by-myself reflecting and it’s made me love nature, respect nature,” she said. Barton shared the joy she receives showing her sons – and especially her niece from the city – the beauty of a bubble in the sun and the adventures of catching frogs.

Barton agreed with Francis’ affirmation that the family – “the heart of the culture of life” as Pope St. John Paul II called it – is where ecological education is first and best transmitted. The Argentine pope expounds on the integral education that takes place in a family leading to personal maturity, self-control and virtue, sensitivity toward others and mutual respect.

The virtue of gratitude is of great importance to Barton and how she tries to raise her sons. The pope holds these little things in high regard.

From paragraph 212, the pope concludes: “We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread. Furthermore, such actions can restore our sense of self-esteem; they can enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile.”

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