World Environment Day 2017

Photo: St. Vincent de Paul’s garden, in which staff and volunteers grow fresh produce to fill the shelves of the Choice Pantry.

By Maura Carpinello

It was Christmas during my year of service with Colorado Vincentian Volunteers.  I had traveled back East to visit my family for a few days.  I had a mid-morning snack then wandered around my mom’s kitchen for what seemed like minutes, trying to figure out where I should dispose of my banana peel.  (It was probably only 30-45 seconds, in reality.) I reluctantly tossed it into the trashcan, finally realizing there was no compost bin.

This very brief incident has remained in my brain for well over a decade now, a tangible reminder of the incredible power of habits – and the way in which such small acts can be truly transformational.  Not having access to a compost bin for my banana peel has become my often-used analogy for acknowledging the impact that small movements can make and impels me toward greater acts of change, even when I think it won’t make a difference.

I am a tree hugger.  I get laughed at when I walk to the printer twice to manually double-side anything I print. I carry things like banana peels and apple cores with me until I can get to a place where I can compost them. I also carry a reusable water bottle with me everywhere I go. I try to purchase mostly second-hand clothing and support companies with an honest and serious commitment to the environment. And my family prides itself on having only one bag of trash every week. All of these small things might not make a significant dent in the enormous environmental problem our planet currently faces, but it helps me to know that I use half as much paper than I otherwise would; I do my best to minimize what goes into the landfill; I rarely contribute to the 50 billion plastic bottles used in the US in a year (and when I do, they are most definitely recycled); and I’m making the trash collector’s life a little bit easier by not making him drag a heavy trash can to the dump truck.

And more importantly, for me, these small efforts are part of a bigger picture – an effort to live a more seamless way of life, where Care for Creation stretches well beyond people to encompass the Earth and all of God’s creatures.  Where people and things are treated with dignity and respect. Where people and things are not considered disposable. Where I recognize and act not only for my own benefit, but because I know and am aware of the ways in which my actions have a ripple effect.  Where I know that the ripple effect most negatively impacts my brothers and sisters experiencing poverty, in my own community and across the world.

“It is the poor and vulnerable who disproportionately suffer from the effects of climate change, such as hurricanes, floods, droughts, famines and water scarcities.  These climate change impacts threaten to foster more desperation and suffering in the world that could lead to more global instability and unrest. It is our moral duty…and in our national interest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and assist the poor and vulnerable among us to adapt.” (Archdiocese of Cincinnati Social Action Office)

Having spent my career walking alongside, encountering, and hoping to do some small thing to support people experiencing poverty, this reality truly grounds me in my convictions and efforts. Knowing that I can – and must – use my privilege in support of those who do not have that luxury challenges me to try harder and do more. People in the West End neighborhood in Cincinnati, who have no access to a grocery store in their neighborhood and few opportunities for education or employment around the corner from where they live, have an air quality level that is much lower than that in my own neighborhood within the city limits. Meanwhile, people in the Ocotillo community in El Salvador suffer from a lack of clean drinking water. No matter where we look, it is our neighbors most in need who suffer most from the effects of environmental degradation. It is unjust, and it is a call to action.

“Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” (Pope Francis, Laudato Sí, 23)

We all have the great responsibility to share these realities and struggles, challenges and invitations to live better, more intentionally, more consciously. I have the gift of being able to do so with the Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati. As VVC welcomes a new community each summer, I slowly unveil my banana-peel-carrying oddities, hoping to reveal the depth of purpose, meaning, and intention of each of these seemingly silly acts and hoping to inspire them, too, to look more carefully and more intentionally at their own actions and habits and how they impact others along the way. Just as mentors and role models in my own life have shaped and challenged my way of life for the better, I hope that I can impart a piece of this gleaned wisdom so that our ripple can grow wider.

“Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others. Since the world has been given to us, we can no longer view reality in a purely utilitarian way, in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit. Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us. (Pope Francis, Laudato Sí, 159)”