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Observer editorial: Protect our planet

| Friday, April 28, 2017

On Monday evening, dozens of mint wrappers were scattered between the two sets of doors leading to South Dining Hall.

Those who made a hasty decision to casually toss aside their useless pieces of plastic likely intended to make their lives easier by disposing of meaningless waste. Perhaps they did not knowingly contribute to a destructive cycle of violence against our shared planet, instigate the death of animals — likely campus squirrels and rabbits — and thwart the naturally occurring food-chain process.

But they did.

Though it may seem trivial to dwell on something as seemingly insignificant as mint wrappers, individuals too often evade their social responsibility to care for the environment by arguing that one more piece of plastic on the ground won’t destroy the Earth; that 10 extra seconds of running water won’t prolong droughts; that three hours of leaving the overhead lights on in an empty dorm room won’t drain energy reserves; or that their conservation efforts cannot possibly mitigate the harm inflicted on the planet.

But they can.

With curriculums that emphasize ethics and justice — Notre Dame recently initiated a new resiliency and sustainability minor tailored to engineering students — the University and the College demonstrate confidence in their students’ capacities to apply lessons from the classroom to the outside world and to enact change both on campus and in the surrounding community. Similarly, students should never doubt their agency. We need to understand how our actions can inflict serious consequences on the very environment that has nourished and sustained us for our entire lives.

On April 8, Notre Dame students participated in a number of environmentally friendly service projects in South Bend, Indiana, as part of the University’s annual service initiative, Back the Bend. Over this past weekend, several students attended South Bend’s March for Science, contributing to a national movement that demands research and development earn substantial government funding. Unfortunately, some individuals believe participation in such public displays of support for the environment is the only way they can make substantial differences in the condition of our deteriorating planet. By insisting they do not have the time, energy or money to protest, buy a Prius, install solar panels or engage in other, more demanding acts of sustainability, some people consider themselves useless assets in the battle against climate change. Here, they solidify their roles as mere perpetrators of — rather than respondents to — a global phenomenon whose ruinous effects they have the power to reduce.

Not all love for the Earth needs to manifest itself in grand displays of public support. Holding onto your mint wrapper for an extra 20 seconds until you can dispose of it, turning off the lights when you’re not in the room and drinking from a reusable water bottle can all make visible differences in the longevity and well-being of this planet. No act is too small to matter.

With that sentiment in mind, the University promotes recycling on game days and even challenges dorms to promote energy conservation through events like Megawatt Madness. Similarly, the College celebrates Paperless Day by urging professors not to distribute handouts and by encouraging students to type their notes. Institutional initiatives such as these remind students of what they should always be doing but far too often neglect: living with compassion for the Earth and remaining cognizant of the hazardous effects their seemingly casual actions could bring about.

Another effective call for individuals to regard the planet with the decency and respect it deserves comes in the form of Earth Month, which is currently being celebrated. In the same way students care deeply about human injustices, we must understand the plight our planet is forced to endure when we waste resources, when we take cruises, when we cut down trees, when we kill animals, when we drive — and even when we toss aside mint wrappers.

Pope Francis makes this comparison between disadvantaged residents of the Earth and the Earth itself throughout his encyclical “Laudato si’,” in which he refers to the planet as “the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”

Responding to the violation and destruction inflicted on the Earth each day is not merely a good deed or a considerate gesture. All residents of this shared planet — particularly those Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s community members endowed with premier educations which expose them to the harsh realities of climate change — have a moral obligation to inflict as little damage as possible to our collective home.

Perhaps the first person to let go of his or her wrapper when exiting the dining hall dismissed the action as inconsequential, wrongly believing one piece of soft plastic on the ground could not possibly do any harm. And perhaps the next few litterers followed the same thought process, assuming the custodial staff would easily pick up five or six wrappers, failing to account for the fact that a gust of wind could easily blow the waste outside. Over time, the small pile enabled subsequent individuals who dropped their wrappers to justify their carelessness, since they were merely exhibiting the same behavior dozens of others did before them.

When students exit the doors of South Dining Hall, fresh peppermints in their cheeks, a simple fact often slips the mind: Our planet doesn’t get healthier by itself. While Earth Month is as good a time as ever to raise awareness and take action, climate change — one of the biggest crises our world is facing right now — does not go away once the calendar flips to May. The challenge is to continue these efforts and make environmentally conscious decisions a part of one’s daily routine in the long term.

Lead by example. Engage in the little tasks. Next time, throw away the wrapper. Continue to think critically about what else you can do for our common home. You don’t have to do a lot, but there’s a lot you can do.

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