Thy neighbors’ trash

By George Clifford

Each Tuesday, the city of Raleigh collects trash and recyclable items in my neighborhood. People place their rubbish and recycling bins curbside Monday evening or early Tuesday morning. After a windy Monday night or on a windy Tuesday, material blown from open recycling bins and from overstuffed trash bins litters the neighborhood. On my Tuesday jogs – with advancing age and declining speed I no longer presume to call my daily four miles a run – I frequently stop to pick up litter, depositing it in a convenient bin. Nobody has yet asked me what I am doing, what gives me the right to put litter in their bin. More surprisingly, nobody else whom I see on my Tuesday excursions picks up litter. Dog walkers, runners, people in their yards, lawn care service employees, children waiting for a ride – all seem equally oblivious to the litter. As the neighborhood stays relatively litter free, either homeowners eventually pick up the litter or wind patterns carry most of the litter elsewhere.

Perhaps another sign of my age is that I jog without an IPOD, phone, or other electronic device. Through decades of busy days in which my run often provided me with my only private time and, on many days, was a much needed stress reliever, I cultivated the habit of using the time for reflection and prayer. On a recent Tuesday, I reflected about litter, why it bothers me, and why I interrupt my jog to pick up somebody else’s trash.

Although the Bible speaks of humans receiving dominion over the earth from God, that dominion has never struck me as authorizing humans to destroy the earth. The Navy gave me authority over sailors. My commission – like that of all Navy leaders – was to help those sailors develop, not destroy them. The Navy is generally very clear that its sailors, no matter how eccentric or troublesome, are not the nation’s enemies against whom the Navy may one day have to wage war. In this day of joint warfare operations, the Navy even acknowledges that soldiers and airmen are friends, not foes (Marines have always been part of the Department of the Navy, a fact both sailors and Marines are sometimes loathe to admit it!). Parents have dominion over children. Again, the intent is to develop the child, not to destroy. The same principle – to develop not destroy – seems to express the intent of human dominion over the earth.

The analogy of sailor (or child) and earth seems particularly apt when one considers that both are composite, living entities. A human being has approximately one trillion cells. Over the years, new cells replace many of those that die; some cells malfunction (e.g., a cell that becomes cancerous); other cells are sacrificed for the greater good (e.g., removal of an appendix about to burst or cells that would form webbing between toes). The body can withstand much use and abuse but that has definite limits. For example, most of us survive multiple falls with little or no permanent damage but could not survive a truck hitting us at 55 mph as we walk across a street.

No analogy is perfect. A person is his/her body. The earth is not a person. Yet the earth is like a living organism with parts too numerous to count. Change, as with a human, is endemic to the earth. The earth’s geology, weather, flora, fauna, etc., all constantly evolve. The earth is amazingly resilient. It endures and overcomes a remarkable amount of use and abuse, whether from humans cultivating food, building shelter, dumping waste in the ocean, or conducting atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the last century. But we are approaching – some would say we have even passed – the earth’s ability to absorb our unthinking abuse. Like a human, the earth has only a finite capacity to absorb abuse. The signs of our surpassing that capacity are manifold: climate change, persistent smog, once fertile fields stripped bare of their topsoil, once potable watersheds from which we now pump only toxic water, etc.

What awoke me to the problem of the abused earth was seeing a June 22, 1969 morning newspaper photograph of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, OH, burning. Although I was still in high school at the time and my education far from complete, I knew enough science to know that rivers do not burn naturally. Something was grievously wrong. My awakening continued with reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and discovering that I, who thought I lived in an idyllic, friendly wilderness –Maine – in fact lived near one of the nation’s most polluted rivers. The river’s water was so toxic that fish no longer lived in it; a person who accidentally fell into the river often required medical attention. My environmental awareness has given me an abiding and deep appreciation for the phrase in Rite II Eucharistic Prayer C, “this fragile earth, our island home.”

Too many people continue to act as if human “dominion” authorizes the use, abuse, or even destruction of the earth. As a Christian and as a priest, I understand the transformative power of words. One way to change the attitude underlying those actions is to change our words, to identify earth as “Mother Earth.” This affirms earth’s living dimension, associates a nurturing yet powerful metaphor with earth, and recognizes the absolute truth that without the earth, human life as we know would be impossible. “Mother Earth” connotes the totality of this planet and avoids the more limited images some associate with the older, emotionally laden “Mother Nature.” Instead of asking people to be environmentally responsible, we should ask people to treat their Mother well and with love. Christians steeped in ecclesiastical history know that in centuries past, Christians have on occasion referred to the Church as their Mother. In our secular culture with generally ill-formed Christians, the metaphor of Mother Earth probably speaks more powerfully than Mother Church. Objectors do well to remember that a child having more than one mother is no bad thing – unless the child wants to get into mischief! (I’m not advocating polygamy, simply affirming the great benefit that comes from having more than one woman fill a mother-like role in a child’s life.)

Another way to move people away from attempting to exercise dominion over the earth is for those of us committed to caring for Mother Earth to lead by example. Following the leader – adopting a moral exemplar upon whom to base one’s life – is a time-honored approach to the Christian moral life popularized in the question, “What would Jesus do?” I admittedly lack the wisdom to know what type of vehicle, if any, Jesus would drive. I am confident, however, that Jesus would stoop once, or perhaps even several times, per day to pick up litter that disfigures, even temporarily, Mother Earth. A person committed to leading the way towards more fully and completely caring for Mother Earth would do well to audit his or her life for ways to reduce destructive impact and to enhance caring. Maybe one day somebody will ask me why I pick up litter, affording me an opportunity to explain that individual acts done by large groups can collectively make a huge impact (and perhaps to feel a trifle self-righteous!).

Collective action is yet another way to move people away from dominion toward respecting Mother Earth. When Maine enacted a law mandating a deposit on all beverage containers, the state within a matter of months became much cleaner. Non-profit groups and individuals picked up litter and earned money simultaneously. Retailers, bottlers, and others opposed the proposed law. Today, Maine people still consume beverages in bottles and cans, retailers collect and refund deposits, a cottage recycling industry has developed, and Mother Earth is looking better and a little healthier for it. Surely a nation that can send humans to walk on the moon and bring them home safely can find more ways, large and small, to help preserve restore our fragile island home to health.

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years.

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