By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

When on April 22, 1970, I headed from my home at the time near Green Bay to address high school students in central Wisconsin about the importance of that first Earth Day – “E Day” in common parlance – I had no idea of the stakes involved in our responsible stewardship of the Earth.

My focus then was to explain our team’s efforts to stop U.S. Forest Service’s development of a vast wilderness tract in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula called the Sylvania Wilderness Tract.

At the time, the Forest Service had proposed to share the experience of wilderness with citizens by building, among many other things, a monorail through the dense forest. We were skeptical that the area’s nesting bald eagles – incredibly rare in those days of DDT – would be as eager to see tourists as the tourists would be to see them.

The point of my presentation, repeated several times that day, was that life is about choices – and if we did not take care of our valuable natural resources, we would lose them forever.

Every step of supposed “progress” has a cost, I told the students. Sometimes those costs are bargains. Sometimes they are not. Turning the Sylvania Wilderness Tract into a Disneyworld would not preserve the largest wilderness tract east of the Mississippi. It would ravage it.

If we lost it and the Forest Service won – clearing truly virgin timber, paving over fragile, untrammeled soil, erecting concession stands and building a monorail through the vast expanse – we could never get that wilderness back.

What I didn’t anticipate at the time was that more -- much more -- was at stake than an 18,000 acres of wilderness dotted with eight pristine lakes.

The realization that the stakes of the environmental challenge come down to the ability of the Earth to sustain life – any life, all life – came slowly to me. That first E-Day was 53 years ago. I was just 22-years-old. I should have been paying more attention.

Today I am three-quarters of a century old, have five children and 17 grandchildren. And I would like to see them – and their own grandchildren – enjoy and thrive in this God-given, grace-filled place that is the only planet we know of so far than can sustain human life. For now.

Although the environmental health and prospects of the Earth have become a political football, the nearly unanimous consensus of the scientific community is that our planet is under siege and facing great peril because of what we have done and continue doing to it.

We are crazy not to listen to those who know.

Growing awareness

It was only a year after that first E-Day that Pope Paul VI warned: “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation.”

In 1979 Pope St. John Paul II said humanity seems “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.” In 1991 he said that to protect the Earth requires profound changes in “lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.”  By 2001 he was calling for an ecological conversion.

In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.”

Then, in 2015 Pope Francis published Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.

It’s hard to believe that was eight years ago. I have yet to hear it mentioned even once from a pulpit.

And I’m among that tiny minority of Catholics who attend Mass weekly.

(To any priest or bishop who has mentioned it, even once, my apologies for not having heard it – and my gratitude to you for highlighting the most fundamental life issue facing all of humanity.)

In the wake of Laudato Si’, Catholics have stepped more explicitly into this vital ring of discipleship. Among the most visible are women religious who have undertaken a host of stewardship initiatives on behalf of the Earth -- “our common home.” They are great role models.

What can we do?

When it comes to saving a planet, it often seems like there is little or nothing we can do individually. But if we look a little closer, we can find some opportunities. And we don’t have to act only individually. Here are some modest thoughts:

  • Follow Mother Teresa’s advice: “Live simply so others may simply live.”
  • Plan ahead so you can combine trips and drive less.
  • Recycle.
  • Minimize your use of plastics, and what you must use dispose of properly.
  • Consider installing solar panels, or pay a small premium to get your electrical power from renewable sources.
  • Write to your elected representatives to support environmentally sound legislation.
  • Invest in environmentally sound enterprises.
  • Explore the feasibility of owning an electric vehicle.
  • Share your environmental concerns – and initiatives – with family and friends.
  • Buy a copy of Laudato Si’: On Care of Our Common Home – and when you’re done reading it, share it with a friend.

Seriously, the pope’s book is brief, only 163 pages, and easy to read. Despite that, it’s very comprehensive and scientifically informed. Read it with an open mind and heart and it might just change your life … and improve the chances for life everywhere.

Happy E-Day!