June 5, 2020, Adrian, Michigan – “We have one common home – and this is Earth. Our care for it matters – as does our lack of care.”
That was the reflection and challenge of Sister Corinne Sanders, OP, Director of the Office of Sustainability for the Adrian Dominican Sisters, as she and other Sisters and Co-workers from Adrian and beyond reflected on the approaching United Nations World Day of the Environment on June 5, 2020.
Over the years, the Adrian Dominican Congregation has focused its environmental sustainability efforts on the Motherhouse campus – from establishing a Permaculture site in which those who work the land follow the patterns and lessons of nature to considerably reducing its use of power and ensuring that electric power comes from renewable energy sources.
These efforts have been stepped up especially since the Congregation’s 2016 General Chapter, which adopted four Enactments. The Enactment on sustainable living reads: “Recognizing the violence against Earth community that places our common home in dire jeopardy and intensifies the suffering of people on the margins, future generations and all creation, we will sacrifice to mitigate significantly our impact on climate change and ecological degradation.”
Key Environmental Issues
Sister Corinne sees all of the environmental issues faced by Earth to be “connected and interconnected,” making it impossible to choose one issue as the most pressing.
Sister Mary Ellen Leciejewski, OP, System Vice President of Environmental Sustainability for CommonSpirit Health, agrees. “Whether our focus is on issues related to climate change, flood/drought, loss of biodiversity, air, water or plastic pollution, toxic chemicals, agriculture, environmental justice, housing, hunger, employment, education – they’re all intertwined and affect the health and well-being of our planet, its inhabitants, and each and every one of us,” she said.
Long-time environmentalist Sister Patricia Benson, OP, is especially concerned with the issues of climate change, pure water and air, and “sufficient food and shelter for all peoples and habitats for other creatures.” She serves on the Board of the River Raisin Institute, a Monroe, Michigan-based organization that offers hands-on environmental education to local students, fosters sustainability awareness, and sponsors activities to enhance the environment.
Jared Aslakson, Permaculture Specialist, counts biodiversity loss and declining availability of natural resources – particularly water and oil – as especially concerning. “A few papers have come out in the last few years which suggest that ecosystem productivity is better predicted by biodiversity than climate change,” he said. “Our landscapes are more resilient to climate change when there is a greater abundance and diversity of living things.”
The environmentalists reflected on the environmental challenges that we face today. “We are each embedded in a 21st-century culture that stresses individualism and very consumptive, selfish habits,” Sister Pat said. She spoke of the need for “a change of focus of our worldview from satisfying self to recognizing the true kindom – which includes all peoples and other creatures and nature itself, and basing our decisions on the common good of Earth.”
Jared cites failure of the imagination – the tendency to see only two possible futures, a “space-faring utopia or a brutal collapse” – as the greatest challenge. “Cultivation of the imagination allows people to think critically about what our society says the future must look like,” he said. “When we can’t imagine alternatives, those alternatives won’t materialize and we remain stuck in business as usual.”
Sister Corinne sees the lack of infrastructure to support change as one of our greatest challenges. “While many individuals acting together can make a significant change in the areas of climate change, they can only make so many changes if the infrastructure is not in place,” she said. She gave the example of areas with little or no public transportation, forcing many people in the area to drive.
Environmental Effects of COVID-19
All four saw some changes in the status of the environment since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the majority of people to shelter in place. Sister Pat sees the clearing of pollution and other benefits as temporary. The simultaneous “canceling of years of environmental regulation and progress by our government and its unwillingness to work with other global leaders to address climate change is catastrophic.”
Both Sister Corinne and Sister Mary Ellen, however, see the pandemic as an opportunity to see more clearly environmental degradation and to address it. “From what we read and see, Earth is on her own healing path since humans retreated,” Sister Corinne said. “This has to tell us something about the way we affected the health of Earth.” She hopes to offer suggestions for herself and the Motherhouse Campus in Adrian on “how we emerge from our current ‘stay at home’ to being back in the world, but with new insights, understandings, and changes to live in communion with Earth.”
Sister Mary Ellen said the pandemic is teaching us how interconnected we really are,. She noted the social, racial, and environmental inequalities that have become clear since the pandemic struck – as well as the compassion, heroism, and kindness that it brought out in many. “The pandemic is an opportunity to see more clearly the suffering of beings on our planet and not look away, and to acknowledge the ways we have been complicit in it,” Sister Mary Ellen said.
Impact of Individual Choices
Noting that the enormity of climate change and other environmental problems can be overwhelming, the four also spoke of ways that individuals can have a positive impact on the health of the environment and help to heal the planet.
Sister Pat advocates a simpler lifestyle, one that provides time to “develop relationships that nourish and sustain us as well as using closer to our fair share of natural resources.” In addition, she counseled the need to “distinguish between our needs and wants.”
Jared said that how an individual can make a difference depends on circumstances. “Not everybody can give up their car or afford organic food,” he said. He suggested learning new skills according to your interest: whether gardening, sewing, cooking, or using herbal medicine. “Find ways to lower the amount of stuff and energy you consume,” and cut down on your use of social media and television, he said.
Sister Mary Ellen had several suggestions: become politically involved and speak out on environmental issues; reduce water and energy consumption; consider changing to a whole-food, plant-based diet; and treat all with compassion and dignity. “Create space and times in your life to connect with the Sacred, nature, yourself, family, and the whole community of life,” she said.
Spirituality and Hope
The environmentalists see their work as integral to their faith in God and their spirituality.
“The Universe and Earth are God’s, not ours,” Sister Pat said. “Exploiting Earth is trashing God’s beautiful gift to us. It is my faith that has sustained my ecological efforts. At this point, it is God who is the source of my hope. Somehow God holds everything in love.”
Sister Mary Ellen said, “I have heard it said that spirituality is an exquisite awareness of our connection to everyone and everything on our planet. So in essence, the sustainability work I’m involved in on a daily basis – at its core – is a spiritual issue and informs my faith life.”
Sister Mary Ellen also experiences hope through “working with people who are able to hold opposites and get real about what is needed in this day and age, and who are committed to building a new future together. Other sources of hope include science and innovative technology and people who are willing to tell their story.”
Jared Aslakson, left, and Jesse, a student, work in the Permaculture site of the Adrian Dominican Sisters Motherhouse during the 2019 Environmental Leadership Experience for Barry University and Siena Heights University students.
Jared sees hope through the power of nature. “I think environmentalists often get bogged down with all the bad news about the environment and they think of nature as a weak maiden that’s been tied to the railroad, while some caped villain strokes his mustache,” he said. But Earth is tough, he added. “The sheer power of life is humbling and empowering. Work with those forces and you can have a great quality of life for a long time.”
Jared also finds hope in the reaction of the plants in the Permaculture site in these times of the pandemic. “Even as the human world is in complete disarray, the berry bushes and asparagus are coming up right on time,” he said. “The vegetable seedlings act the same way, and the earth worms are just as busy.”