Soften our ecological footprints

July 3, 20065

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 466-487

China and India are preparing to join the industrialized nations, not only in prosperity, but also as major consumers of resources. It is good to see the world's two most populous nations overcoming their long legacy of poverty and building a bright economic future.

But environmentally the world is already in a pickle. We have major concerns about global warming, resource depletion and old-fashioned pollution. If the world's two most populous nations develop resource-intensive economies, it will contribute much more to planetary devastation.

In China, 15 years ago, private automobiles were a rarity. By 2002, there were 10 million private vehicles in the country. By 2015, there are expected to be 150 million. Even then, most families will not own their own auto, let alone the two or more cars typical in many North American families.


The 20th century was marked by, among other things, consumer apartheid. The Western world shot ahead in prosperity and consumption while the rest of the world remained relatively stagnant. We witnessed such phenomena as the creation of needs, built-in obsolescence and over-packaging. Now, we take it all for granted.

- Design Pics photo

Today, 12 per cent of the world's population live in North America and Western Europe but we do 60 per cent of the world's consuming. South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have 33 per cent of global population but account for only 3.2 per cent of consumption.

Finger pointing won't help much. What we need is not blame but a way for all the peoples of the world to have relatively equal access to the goods of the earth without at the same time destroying the environment. One estimate – for that to happen – is consumption in North America will have to drop by up to 90 per cent.

Making that happen is a two-part process. One, people's attitudes and expectations will have to change enormously. Second, corporations will have to take more responsibility for the planet and governments will have to regulate more. The first part of the process will be the focus of the remainder of this article; the second part will be the topic of next week's commentary.

A change in moral attitudes does not come easily or overnight. Catastrophe or an unexpected lottery win can spur transformation in people's lives. Otherwise, you need a process of conversion.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says, "Serious ecological problems call for an effective change of mentality, leading to the adoption of new lifestyles. . . . These lifestyles should be inspired by sobriety, temperance and self-discipline at both the individual and social levels. There is the need to break with the logic of mere consumption" (n. 486).

The Compendium then adds, "The attitude that must characterize the way man acts in relation to creation is essentially one of gratitude and appreciation" (n. 487). In other words, we must be committed to living a less consumptive lifestyle and that commitment is most likely to arise out of an appreciation that everything we have is a gift from God.

It would be an understatement to say that most people in the Western world do not look at things in this way. Even for those of us who say this is our approach to life, change is difficult. We find it easier to give money and time to worthy causes than to substantially cut back our consumption.

The Chinese prophet Lao Tzu said, "To know when you have enough is to be rich." This is exactly right. Wealth is a state of mind more than it is the size of one's bank account.


We need a great deal more spiritual discipline. Such self-discipline can be ornery and sour-faced or it can be rooted in love. An intimate love of God will lead one to see that the things of this world are mere dross. Indeed, self-discipline is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit along with joy, kindness, peace, gentleness and other good things.

It is not going too far to say that a deep love for God will lead one to a kindly, but ascetic, lifestyle that walks more gently on the earth. It is a direction in which we all should move.

Ultimately, however, it will not be enough to save the planet. Most of us live in situations that require us to use private transportation, buy food from supermarkets, dress our children and ourselves respectably, and pay the heat and water bills. Living like St. Anthony of the Desert is not a viable option for many.

The changes that can make a big difference to the level of consumption are societal changes. It is in society as a whole with all its competing interests, viewpoints, fears and obsessions that the largest steps will have to be taken towards saving the planet.