Jen Barton works as an Environmental Services Specialist for the Northwest Regional Planning Commission. She stands next to a sampling of collected televisions and computer parts waiting to be recycled. Local recycling of these items is not cost effective and therefore items get transported to La Crosse for processing. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series 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.

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, the celebration has expanded to almost 200 countries bringing together more than 1 billion people, a number that rivals the estimated population of Catholics worldwide.

From the first chapters of Genesis to the Seventh Commandment, Christians are entreated upon to integrally respect creation and the order with which God created the world.

Paragraph 2415 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come.”

Although Pope Benedict XVI was dubbed “the Green Pope” for the attention he gave to environmental issues, it was Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si,” (On Care for our Common Home) that pushed Catholic dialogue on the subject to a new stage.

While many secular news sources focused on sound bytes from the encyclical in support of climate change, there are many rich passages that were largely overlooked.

Jen Barton is an Environmental Services Specialist with the Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NWRPC). She works out of the Spooner office and is a St. Francis de Sales parishioner and school parent. Barton started with the NWRPC 17 years ago as an intern separating recyclables. She now coordinates hazardous waste collection and assists recycling efforts in a 10-county radius.

Barton was pleasantly surprised by various “Laudato Si” quotes, admitting her knowledge of Francis’ document came primarily from Time magazine and Huffington Post summaries.

She was encouraged by the pope’s call to a renewed sense of order and hierarchy in creation. Pope Francis says in paragraph 116-117: “Our ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship. … Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself.”

The pope speaks of a “misguided lifestyle,” and of the dangerous “practical relativism typical of our age. When human beings place themselves at the center, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative.” (Paragraph 122)

He summarizes this as the “throwaway culture,” and Pope Francis links that mindset with realities from pollution to superficiality in human relationships and compulsive consumerism – “environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation.” (Paragraph 56)

Barton deals with these effects daily. She said electronics are the most prominent challenge for recycling in northwest Wisconsin. They have tons of them and most electronics have to be shipped to La Crosse for processing at a cost to consumers.

She said a household’s annual average electronics waste is easily in double digits – TVs, cellular phones, computers and tablets, musical and gaming devices, children’s battery-operated and mechanized toys, not to mention the packaging. According to a report from E-Cycle Wisconsin, 15.3 million eligible pounds of electronics were recycled statewide for the second half of 2017 alone.

Agreeing with the pope’s concern with compulsive consumerism, Barton wishes people would “just take a minute and think.” She writes a regular column for local newspapers sharing ideas to reduce environmental impact.

She believes this mindfulness conversely increases the quality of life and relationships, encouraging parents to instill a “less is more” attitude from a young age. Use less stuff. Be more present. Reduce exposure to commercials and ads. Take stock of your standard of living expectations. Reflect deeply on what is truly necessary.

Critical thinking is key in Barton’s opinion. Disheartened by the effects of the “throwaway culture” she sees in her work, she said, “We have to deal with garbage.” She advocates giving gifts of experiences, not toys that will end up in the garbage or a thrift shop’s overflowing donation box.

Barton affirmed the connection Pope Francis makes in the encyclical’s sixth chapter: “Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending.”

Barton shared Depression-era anecdotes of people’s ability to re-use and re-purpose almost anything and wonders, “Where did we lose that? And why is it now okay to have five pairs of tennis shoes?”

She echoes Pope Francis’ call to a new way of thinking — morally infused moderation and liberating sobriety; and acknowledges the challenge to promote it, even in an area where advertised ideals are out of reach for many families’ budgets.

“How often do we buy things we don’t need and are outside of our means?” Barton asks. “We’ve been conditioned, almost like a game – to instant gratification.”

Barton added, “I don’t want to take care of stuff, I want to take care of people.”