By Sheila Read
“Our present crises – be they economic, food-related, environmental or social – are ultimately also moral crises, and all of them are interrelated. They require us to rethink the path which we are travelling together.” ~Pope Benedict XVI
During June of 2007, I tried to give up driving for a month. I lasted 14 days before I gave in and drove the car to an appointment. It was 97 degrees out, and I didn’t want to arrive drenched in sweat.
The experiment taught me many things, including how difficult it is to go without driving while living in the suburbs. I worked about four miles from home at the time and was able to ride my bike to work. But riding in summer over hills on roads without adequate room for bicycles is hot, tiring and dangerous.
I wanted to cut down on driving to reduce my carbon footprint. Along with the energy used to heat and cool homes, cars are a top producer of carbon emissions. They also contribute to air pollution, most noticeably in the summer, when car exhaust contributes to low-level ozone that degrades air quality.
Driving may the most difficult area of life to change for many Americans because of how our cities, residential areas, and shopping areas have been designed around use of the car. Even when we desire to drive less, life circumstances can make it difficult to put that into practice, especially when jobs or family members are further from home than we’d like. For example, I currently have a 26-mile commute.
Catholic Social Teaching
Changing our transportation habits will require major changes at a personal as well as structural level. The Catholic Church in recent decades has been more vocal in calling for people to make sacrifices to safeguard God’s creation for future generations. In 1990, Pope John Paul II said, “Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its life style. In many parts of the world, society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these cause.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also has called for Catholics to take responsibility for our choices and lifestyles. In the pastoral reflection Renewing the Earth, the bishops wrote: “… We invite Catholics and men and women of good will in every walk of life to consider with us the moral issues raised by the environmental crisis…. These are matters of powerful urgency and major consequence. They constitute an exceptional call to conversion.”
Pope Benedict XVI has also been calling Catholics, particularly in wealthy nations, to change lifestyles to ones that are more sustainable. Under his leadership, the Vatican is following what Benedict has been preaching on reducing energy use, installing solar panels on the Vatican’s audience hall and setting a goal to get 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020. Last summer it was widely reported that the Vatican was looking at hybrid electric cars that could be modified for the next Popemobile.
Although we live in a car-based culture, there still are steps we can take to reduce driving. It wasn’t until I tried the experiment in giving up driving that I realized how many of my car trips were based on instant gratification. The idea of ice cream would pop into my head, and I would drive five miles round trip to get it.
It’s possible to avoid these kinds of unnecessary, spur-of-the-moment trips by better planning and more thoughtfulness about use of the car. But more significant, long-term changes to make our lives less dependent on cars will likely require public policies that promote public transportation and urban designs that make cities and residential areas more walkable.
Lent 4.5 offers many tips for decreasing carbon emissions related to transportation, including the following:
- Before driving, ask yourself if the trip is necessary. Can you combine errands or walk or bike? 40 percent of urban travel occurs within 2 miles of home, with 90 percent of those trips by car.
- Reduce travel by airplane. Two cross-country flights emit 2,000 pounds of CO2 per passenger.
- Start a neighborhood car pool to take kids to school. Consider car pooling to work.
- Avoid idling while waiting to pick up kids. Americans use 2.9 billion gallons of gas each year while idling.
- Consider making your next car purchase a fuel-efficient hybrid or electric car.