The early Jesuits made the city the landscape of their evangelization. A classic Latin verse put it this way: “Bernard loved the valleys; Benedict, the hills; Francis, the towns; Ignatius, the great cities.” So we are not surprised, when it comes to environmental responsibility, that Benedictines, especially Benedictine women, have been pioneers. But Jesuits have now taken up the environmental challenge (“Jesuits Urged to Protect Creation,” Am. 10/10).
It is not as if Jesuits have been absent from the environmental movement. For three decades Father Al Fritsch has labored out of Livingston, Ky., to provide environmental education and services for a large swath of Appalachia. In New England, Father Jack Savard has brought green spirituality to spiritual direction and retreats. In California, Father Bill Wood, who was at one time general secretary of the California Catholic Conference, blended green theology with advocacy on food and agriculture issues.
But now they are not alone. The worldwide Society of Jesus has taken up sustainability as a major theme of its apostolates; and Jesuit colleges, along with other Catholic colleges, have taken it up as part of their Catholic mission.
Sustainability refers to the management of natural resources so they will remain available for future generations. It is a work of intergenerational justice. It therefore vexes me to hear that some institutions seem to have adopted sustainability as if the church’s post-conciliar commitment to the “faith that does justice” is passé and only sustainability, in a narrow sense, matters. The recent Jesuit document “Healing a Broken World” could not be more clear: Sustainability is “a justice issue.”
Universities and colleges should have green audits, recycle their waste, consume biodegradable and organically grown products and use renewable energy supplies. But commitment to preserving the earth demands more than “taking out your own garbage.” It requires us to take responsibility for the ecosystems of which our institutions are a part: protect our watersheds, improve air quality, heal and comfort those suffering from environmental diseases, and retrain and employ those who have lost their jobs to environmental catastrophes or new regulatory policies. Sustainability cannot be parted from environmental justice.
One has only to recall the struggles of Dorothy Stang, S.N.D.deN., to save the Amazonian forests and of the late Wangari Maathai to prevent deforestation in Kenya, or the efforts of Erin Brockovich in California and Jan Schlichtmann (the Massachusetts lawyer and hero of A Civil Action) to rescue water supplies from chemical pollution, to appreciate how very much ecological responsibility and the struggle for justice are intertwined.
Environmental injustice exacts enormous costs from its victims, who are often the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. What’s more, claiming environmental justice from powerful vested interests demands painful sacrifices from its advocates. Sister Stang was assassinated, Matthai was imprisoned, and a bankrupt Schlichtmann attempted suicide. Jesuits, their students, parishioners and spiritual directees ought to grasp that the struggle for environmental justice requires men and women prepared for long and arduous conflict.
Insofar as sustainability aims to conserve the earth for future generations, it also entails facing up to the limits of economic growth as a way of measuring societal well-being. We Americans must imagine a different future for ourselves, with alternatives that include a fairer distribution of wealth, which may make it easier to maintain a sustainable quality of life.