“Only major institutional and technological change…” but also consider a single person and a pump handle…

December 21, 2015

The 2005 Institute Chapter of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas recognized the critical need “to reverence Earth and work more effectively toward the sustainability of life and toward universal recognition of the fundamental right to water.” In 2011, we further declared that we “are scandalized by … the degradation of Earth,” and believe we are now led by God to “address the underlying causes” of this Critical Concern and “to act in ways which contribute to a sustainable future for … Earth.”

If the official utterances of our Institute Chapters have not sufficiently moved us and our Mercy Communities to decisive adoption of all the necessary means to care for Earth, maybe the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) can do so. On April 13, 2014, announcing publication of the third part of its Fifth Assessment Report, the Panel said:

“It would be possible, using a wide array of technological measures and changes in behaviour, to limit the increase in global mean temperature to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, only major institutional and technological change will give a better than even chance that global warming will not exceed this threshold.”

Pump Handles
Before looking at some of the adaptations and mitigations, both small and large, which our Mercy Communities and institutions are called to initiate or augment now, let me tell you a brief story about one man’s small action that decisively mitigated a grave human crisis.

John Snow, an English physician and epidemiologist, observed during the 1854-55 cholera epidemic in London that a large number of cholera deaths occurred in people using a particular water pump at the intersection of Cambridge and Broad Streets. He immediately asked the Board of Guardians to remove the pump handle. Very quickly the number of cholera cases in that area diminished.

Snow’s practical act of removing the pump handle later led to Edward Koch’s identification of the main cholera-producing bacterium (in contaminated water), modern antibiotic treatment, and intravenous fluid and salt replacement which have now virtually eliminated cholera deaths where such treatments are available in a timely fashion.

To promote the sustainability of Earth and mitigate the future ravages of climate change each one of us and each Mercy Community now has many “pump handles” within reach. We can ignore them, telling ourselves that the “handles” are too big for us to tackle or that it is someone else’s job to remove them; we can say that the climate problem “won’t affect us”—“us” still narrowly defined. Or we can begin, bit by bit, to remove the “pump handles”—all the dozens of processes and behaviors, large and small, that are some of the underlying causes of the rape of our Earth-Home, its created life and its soil, oceans and atmosphere.

It is no longer enough for individual sisters and associates to work through their ministries to care for Earth. Our Communities themselves and their leadership, who on our behalf oversee our institutional buildings, properties and systems, must also step up and make the urgent, difficult, but necessary decisions that genuine response to climate change requires. Today Earth places before all our Mercy Communities a summons to increased and vigorously conscientious care of Earth that will truly promote its sustainability.

Small, urgently needed efforts: is your Community already doing any of these?

  • Recycling everything recyclable, always: all glass, cans, plastics, office paper, newspaper and magazines.
  • Eliminating all plastic bags, refusing to accept them from vendors and using only cloth bags.
  • Using only tap water, never bottled water unless absolutely necessary in true emergencies.
  • Using only silverware, chinaware and clothnapkins, never plastic or paper utensils or containers unless they are recyclable and are absolutely needed.
  • Instituting tray-less service in our Community dining areas, to conserve the water needed to wash hundreds of trays.
  • Serving meatless meals as often as possible.
  • Turning off electric lights in offices, rooms and halls, and on community roadways and parking lots when not needed (especially later at night); installing motion sensors to regulate lighting; using only energy efficient light bulbs; disconnecting all electrically-powered appliances and computers when not in use.
  • Improving meeting technology and cutting down on air travel as much as possible.

These relatively small removals of some of the “pump handles” are only a beginning, an admirable start at climate change adaptation and mitigation. Some will cost us money upfront; some will save us money over the long-term.

Larger efforts: larger in terms of planning, funding, and their overall effect on the future of Earth and life on this planet. These include the following:

  • Composting all garbage, including all the scraps and unusable food in our kitchens and dining areas.
  • Planting trees: trees are the only naturally provided means of converting through photosynthesis carbon dioxide (a main culprit in climate change) to oxygen.
  • Retrofitting our congregational buildings with solar panels, geo-thermal walls, low-flow toilets and showers, increased insulation, rain water collection, gray water recycling systems and increased natural lighting.
  • Securing annual audits of our buildings’ carbon footprint and setting specific annual goals for lowering it.
  • More investing in clean energy, particularly solar and wind energy.
  • Purchasing or leasing only electric, hydrogen or hybrid automobiles.
  • Engaging in governmental advocacy in formal institutional ways. For example, urging national governments to agree in Paris to strong carbon emission targets, and then to implement policies to achieve or exceed those targets; urging them to contribute to the U.N. Green Climate Fund to assist poor nations to reduce their emissions while advancing in sustainable development and adapting to the severe climate changes they already experience.

We got into the climate crisis somewhat casually, in the name of so-called “progress,” not fully realizing the long-term negative effects our “convenience” was having and was going to have. But we will not mitigate the worst ravages that lie ahead if we do not now make hard choices about our institutional systems and behavior.

The summons to greater care of Earth that Earth herself now places before the Communities of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas is a call for greater decisiveness and collaboration with the scientific community and all people of goodwill. If the Mercy Communities of the Americas could collaborate, if we could share with one another what we are doing, if we could prod one another, if we could teach one another how to implement certain mitigation projects, especially the larger, more demanding processes, we would not only enjoy greater peace of conscience, but we would go a long way toward really caring for Earth as we have so earnestly said we wish to do. “Ecology” was not a term with which Catherine McAuley could have been familiar. Yet many of her attitudes reveal the basic principles underlying her sense of the “world” (as she called Earth) and her commitment to the personal and institutional efforts and sacrifices that care for the vulnerable entails. She would, with “sobriety and humility,” embrace Pope Francis’s inspired encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home.” She would take to heart the personal and communal changes in thinking and lifestyle he advocates, all the “re-directing” and “re-prioritizing,” all the deeper “recognitions” and “motivations” he offers, all the “reform” of personal and institutional habits to which he invites us.

She would surrender to the “ecological conversion and spirituality” for which he pleads. And she will now pray with Pope Francis and us as we approach Paris 2015.

Sister Mary Sullivan (NyPPaW) is professor emerita of literature and dean emerita of the College of Liberal Arts, Rochester Institute of Technology. She is the author of several books including Catherine McAuley and the Tradition of Mercy, The Correspondence of Catherine McAuley, 1818-1841, and The Path of Mercy: The Life of Catherine McAuley. She can be reached at [email protected]