On Sunday, we celebrate the 48th anniversary of Earth Day! Since the release of Pope Francis’ second encyclical, Laudato Si, Catholics have been called in a unique way to respond to the “the throwaway culture” and “care for our common home.” Earth Day offers Catholics a time to reflect on the beauty of creation and our role as stewards of creation. The Holy Father urgently appeals to “every living person” to protect one another and the planet. To heed the call, Catholic colleges and universities have been integrating sustainable practices on campuses in small and large ways that both honor the earth and affirm the values of their institutions.
Many universities have incorporated humanity’s call to protect the environment into their mission statements to facilitate the work throughout their campuses. One example can be found at Saint Mary’s College of California. Its mission statement reads, “In fidelity to our educational missions and Catholic principles, Saint Mary’s College is committed to leadership in fostering environmental literacy, modeling a culture of sustainability, and creating an equitable future for all of humankind in harmony with nature.” Having a clear, yet comprehensive mission statement has allowed the campus to make large strides in a short amount of time. In a 2017 Sustainability Report, St. Mary’s stipulated that in order to achieve its objectives, the campus community must be engaged at all levels, take advantage of intellectual resources, have transparent evaluation and planning processes, and ensure that each measure taken is related to its stated goals. Last year, the college was able to do just that. Developments include the addition of mobile solar generators, updated lighting and natural gas systems, and installation of compost bins across campus.
By far, the largest impact came from the compost bins. According to the report, “Landfill [waste] decreased from 655 to 439 tons in the past two years.” St. Mary’s said it was able to make the drastic change through concerted efforts to educate the community on what goes into each recycle bin and provide the right infrastructure and signage within campus grounds. “With those in place, a culture can build.”
Since the inception of its sustainability committee in 2010, John Carroll University has implemented a number of initiatives throughout campus as outlined in its report last year. One of the ways was by integrating “green” measures in campus cafeterias. Changes in its food service facilities began in 2008, with the decision to go tray-less in the Schott Dining Hall. This has reduced food waste and minimized the water and energy that would have been used for tray cleaning. Also, when students want to take food out from the cafeterias, they are given reusable, biodegradable containers rather than foam ones that would eventually occupy a landfill.
Much of John Carroll’s success can be attributed to ongoing collaboration with the Office of Residence Life. The student housing department recently added new wireless thermostats and laundry machines to its residential buildings to improve energy efficiency and reduce water use. In addition, Residence Life regularly hosts informational events to better educate students on sustainability practices.
Xavier University is incorporating academics as part of its sustainability initiatives. The university is offering undergraduate degree programs in sustainability, including economics and management; economics, sustainability, and society; and land, farming, and community. Xavier notes that “each of these three academic majors provide experiential learning opportunities combined with a year-long capstone project, encompassing everything students have learned over the past four years.” The programs present additional opportunities for students “to care for our common home.”
Currently, senior Economics, Sustainability, and Society (ECOS) majors are preparing for their capstone projects, which they will present at the end of April. Throughout their four years at Xavier, the students have “acquired a comprehensive understanding of sustainable economies, including the study of natural resources, plus ecological and environmental problems. Students also gain an understanding of social justice questions related to the distribution of economic products and resources,” according to the university website. The program allows them to carry their studies beyond the classroom. For example, one senior ECOS capstone project focuses on improving the environmental profile of Xavier University by changing campus behaviors and attitudes. As a Jesuit institution, Xavier is committed to fostering students that are stewards of a healthier earth.
Catholic colleges and universities continue to respond to the call of Pope Francis in Laudato Si by implementing sound sustainability practices. These colleges and universities recognize the importance of seeking full campus participation to be most effective in their missions. And, as we mark Earth Day, let’s take time to reflect on the lifestyle changes we can make for a more just and sustainable world.