An important point made by Pope Francis in Laudato Si is that each of us needs to become involved in the effort to take up the fight against environmental destruction. But does this personal effort make any difference? Does my individual engagement matter within the big picture?
Many years ago an Ursuline nun in the Catholic school I attended in Calgary made an effort to raise money among her students to help poor children in Africa. In my pre-adolescent enthusiasm I consistently contributed a significant portion of my monthly allowance to the cause. The good Sister had a small coin collection box on her desk with an African child on the top who would bow to the donor every time a coin was deposited into the container. Later I realized that making use of this little bowing boy was a subtle form of racism.
But my few coins did not seem to me to be enough. The big money in our family was not my little monthly allowance but was under the control of my mother and father. So I went to them and said in my 10 year old arrogance that if they really cared about the poor children in Africa they would sell our house and give them the money. Fortunately for us they did not sell the house and lead all of us into living permanently in a tent in a Calgary camp ground.
Sixty years later, with our planet earth burning up due to fossil fuel emissions, I have quietly committed myself to taking public transportation such as buses and trains in preference to using carbon emitting private cars, even the hybrids that work partially by electricity. My thinking on the hybrids is that the recharging process demands electricity that may be generated in environmentally harmful ways.
I have found benefits from this choice that I did not expect. When they are not busy texting someone with their smart phones my fellow passengers in buses or trains can be interesting to talk with.. On a long journey earlier this year our Greyhound bus pulled out from a rest stop leaving behind an 8 year old Sudanese refugee who with his mother belonged to our travelling community. We fellow passengers shouted out to the driver to stop for the boy and refused to allow him to pull out onto the highway without him. This is an example of timely solidarity which I found engaging.
An area that I have not yet succeeded in diminishing my contribution to atmospheric pollution is in my air travel. I have not yet availed myself of the carbon offset programs available on most airlines. I am not sure why I have not done so, and in this I am not consistent with my deepest desire.
But the question remains: In trying to be part of the solution to the environmental crisis rather than part of the problem am I actually making a difference? Pope Francis in his encyclical would say that indeed I am making this difference. These small actions transform me and turn me into an environmental activist not by what I say but by what I do. As Mahatma Gandhi counselled us long ago. You must be the change you want to see in the world. In other words, if you change yourself you will change the world.
When I was ten years old I wanted my parents to sell our house to save poor children in Africa from poverty. I failed to realize that it was what I was already doing through my small contributions that was ultimately significant, not what my parents did or did not do..