Beyond solar panels and priuses


When Pope Francis issued Laudato Si in 2015, media outlets treated this historic encyclical on climate change and the environment as a “game-changer.”

One Jesuit priest told National Public Radio that the encyclical would have a “far-reaching impact,” because it would encourage Catholics “to make major changes in what they consume and how they live their daily lives.”

While most media attention has focused primarily on the grassroots action, policy advocacy, and greening campaigns of certain politically progressive, predominately white religious activists, it has not begun to address the eco-friendly values and behaviours of communities like the Spanish-speaking Catholics whom I have met across Los Angeles.

Well before the publication of Laudato Si, Latinx Catholic communities were already engaged in the types of sustainable behaviours that the encyclical encourages, such as cultivating their own vegetable gardens, reducing food waste, and abstaining from rampant consumerism.

Yet their actions seldom attract outside attention because working-class, immigrant communities and other communities of colour are rarely considered as authoritative leaders on matters of religion or the environment.

Too often, people assume that the working-class communities who routinely conserve electricity, take their cans to the recycling centre, and ride the bus to school or work, do so because of economic circumstances rather than religious or environmental convictions.

This is because “environmentalism” typically involves a classed moral imperative that environmental actions must be explicitly motivated by concern for the Earth.

In this line of thinking, people who use public transit in order to reduce their carbon footprints are engaged in a virtuous environmental act.

Meanwhile, people who use public transit because they cannot afford a car are excluded from the category of environmentalism.

American environmentalism is often associated with the types of political activism and consumerism embraced by white environmentalists, such as attending climate marches, installing solar panels, and purchasing a Prius.

While those all are valid environmental strategies, my research among Spanish-speaking Catholics shows that there are many additional ways to be a religious environmentalist.

Latinx Catholics participate in their own distinct environmental traditions that combine Catholic sensibilities with Latin American culture and identity.

These inherited practices include non-consumerist, home-based conservation measures such as backyard gardening, reusing old yoghurt containers instead of purchasing Tupperware and wearing hand-me-down clothing that was donated to a local church.

Despite such longstanding practices, neither Latinx communities themselves nor other self-identified environmental activists, tend to recognize Latinx communities’ environmentally sustainable behaviours as “environmental.”

In what follows, I share the environmental stories of three upwardly mobile, bilingual daughters of working-class immigrants: Rebeca, Elena, and Adriana (all pseudonyms).

Each had been identified by local Catholic organizers as promising young leaders in their community and had been recruited to help develop a major project for Spanish-speaking Catholics in Los Angeles.

When I met the women through a focus group in 2017, all three were in their twenties or thirties and had earned college degrees. They had gained entry into professional worlds and all reported annual incomes of greater than $200,000.

Rebeca, Elena, and Adriana were familiar with basic Catholic environmental theology and mainstream white environmentalism.

But through their personal stories of environmental practices in their families and communities, they articulated their own distinct definitions of Catholic environmentalism that centred on reducing food waste and caring for the labourers who produce our food.

These women’s stories show that religious environmental actions can take many forms beyond monolithic understandings of white environmentalism. They demand that our notions of environmental authority must shift as well.

Respecting agricultural workers and the gifts of nature

For Rebeca and Elena, two sisters who were the daughters of working-class Mexican immigrants, environmental values were deeply connected to their Catholic identities and their concerns for the poor.

Together, they described a set of ecological principles that they had learned from their mother, a devout Catholic who taught her five children “what it was like to work at a bottom-tier level and struggle.”

By observing their mother’s daily habits and listening to her conversations and prayers, the sisters had been raised to respect the inherent value of the material goods their parents provided them – such as food and toys – and to appreciate the human labour that went into producing those gifts.

Rebeca described her environmental values as “just basic Catholic social teaching” that promotes justice for the poor.

And both sisters’ stories reflected a degree of uneasiness with their own material success given the ongoing struggles of many in the immigrant community that had raised them.

In response to my question about whether their faith spoke to environmental concerns, both sisters recounted their mother’s lessons about respecting the struggles of agricultural workers and appreciating the possessions they had.

Earlier in the conversation, Elena had talked about global environmental topics such as clean energy sources and ocean pollution.

But in response to my question about the intersection of environmental values and her Catholic faith, Elena told me that “being Catholic…[her] mom always brought [her] up to not be wasteful, and it was always hand in hand with church teachings, like social justice. You shouldn’t be wasteful; you should take what you need and if you can give to others.”

To illustrate this point, Elena recalled how her mother would purchase flowers from a particular vendor on the side of the road.

The vendor had a bad knee and her mother would bring him home remedies to help with his injury. Sometimes she even paid him money for a bouquet without actually taking the flowers so he could sell those flowers to someone else.

Elena’s brothers would also seek out that vendor when they wanted to purchase bouquets for their girlfriends because they felt they were “helping someone in need and someone who is actually trying to work.”

Elena added that her family “always tried to recycle and to not be wasteful” because they were worried about the global environmental crisis.

For her, recycling, sharing food, supporting local vendors, and championing green energy were all interconnected aspects of an expansive environmental commitment that she enacted on a local scale.

Rebeca added that their mother’s Catholic environmental teachings were “constant.”

By way of example, she offered more stories of purchasing produce from vendors on the side of the road.

If their mother saw an orange vendor, for example, she would point out how hard it must be for him to stand outside in the heat all day and how little money he probably earned for his hard work.

Rebeca recalled that her mother “would give you this whole understanding of the person, not just some guy selling oranges that you’re buying even though you [already] have oranges at home.”

Elena asserted that these were all environmental practices, and they were all directly tied to her Catholic faith.

Yet she struggled to articulate the precise connection.

At first, she pointed to her mother’s frequent use of the familiar trope that they must eat their food because children were starving in Africa.

The way her mother spoke of those malnourished children was “to use church teachings.”

Elena concluded that her mother would always make her “very mindful that [she was] blessed to have the food that [she] did have” while others were lacking.

“She always made us aware that we had to take care of nature around us and everything because even then we could see that things weren’t going great for the environment.”

Elena’s general sense that her environmental values were Catholic, without being able to explain exactly how makes sense given the context through which the sisters had learned about environmentalism: their mother’s daily prayers.

Before each meal, their mother would offer a lengthy prayer asking God to bless everyone who had contributed to the meal they were about to eat, such as the campesinos who had harvested their vegetables.

Prayers over Thanksgiving meals were especially detailed, Rebeca recalled, sometimes lasting more than ten minutes because their mother “had to bless everybody!

You think about everything that went behind that platter of vegetables in front of you.”

Elena interjected to add that their mother would even bless the truck drivers who delivered the food to the market, a detail Rebeca confirmed.

“Even the truck driver!” Rebeca exclaimed.

“She would be talking about the person at the supermarket and all that.”

Taken together, these lessons and prayers taught the sisters that “there is just all this value from what you can get from the earth… It’s not something to just toss, or take for granted.”

Through their stories, Rebeca and Elena articulated a form of environmentalism that focused on the just treatment of agricultural workers’ and their Catholic concerns for social justice.

The local focus of their environmentalism was contextualized within a larger awareness that “things weren’t going great” for the environment, and so they supported the individual workers who produced their local food and showed respect and appreciation for the material blessings they had been afforded.

Concern for food waste and the environment

For Adriana, who had immigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico as a teenager, environmental values formed a core part of her identity as a “Catholic with conviction.”

In contrast to her many peers who were “Catholic by tradition,” attending church only for social reasons or because of family pressures, Adriana emphasized that she had made an active choice to learn about her faith, cultivate a personal relationship with God, and discern God’s will in her life.

Being a Catholic with conviction meant constantly trying to improve herself and her surroundings by ensuring that her Catholic values affected every aspect of her life.

This shaped her decisions about which friendships to pursue and how to spend her leisure time.

It also contributed to a generalized environmental ethic of not wasting resources and respecting the gifts of creation – on behalf of the planet itself and also out of a concern for human communities who were suffering from hunger and other climate-related problems.

Adriana discussed the issue of food waste with me as she recounted the struggles that came with her decision to become a Catholic with conviction several years earlier.

In her job at a television network that focused on celebrity gossip and entertainment news, Adriana’s turn to faith caused an internal conflict as she regretted “being part of a message that doesn’t go with where [her] beliefs are right now.”

She felt bothered by many of the producers’ decisions about what to put on the air, such as structuring a whole episode around Kim Kardashian’s Instagram post while barely mentioning Pope Francis’ visit to the United States.

She also felt disturbed by her colleagues’ unsustainable relationships with food.

Every time she looked in the trash, Adriana recalled, she would find perfectly good bananas, apples, and pastries.

At first, she thought the food had been discarded by mistake, but then she realized that her colleagues were routinely taking more food than they could eat and carelessly tossing the excess in the trash.

She would sometimes remove food from the garbage right in front of her peers, even though it made them feel embarrassed.

In one particularly memorable instance, Adriana collected several bananas from the trashcan, took them home to bake banana bread, and brought the bread back to share with her colleagues the next day.

While they were initially appreciative of Adriana’s gift, they were disgusted when she told them the source of the bananas.

Although aware that her coworkers were probably gossiping about her behind her back, Adriana felt that it was important to talk to them about their wasteful habits.

“I never thought about those little details before,” she explained, “but now I perceive every single thing that they do and I always connect it with God. They throw food away and I always think that these are resources that can be used for other people who are in need.”

In Adriana’s story, the conversation easily flowed between superficiality and waste, two key aspects of American culture that she saw as conflicting with her Catholic values.

In opposition to an American society that placed high value on things like internet stardom and women’s sexualized bodies, Adriana’s identity as a Catholic with conviction drove her to create a better world.

While Adriana did not identify “environmentalism” as a distinct personal priority, demonstrating concern for food waste and the environment were basic parts of her Catholic commitment to being a good person and to creating a better society.

As time went on, Adriana both encouraged her producer to feature Pope Francis over Kim Kardashian, and she tried to prevent her colleagues from throwing precious resources into the trash. Becoming an environmentally-minded Catholic, she told me, “does have a lot of effect.”

Environmental commitments like focusing on food, poverty, and waste were one component of that larger whole.

The takeaway

With the release of Laudato Si and other pro-environmental stances by leaders in other religious communities, there is growing recognition that religions might offer resources for addressing the climate crisis.

But these stories focus largely on how clergy and religious texts might inspire people of faith to participate in environmental acts that look like mainstream, white environmentalism.

They overlook the daily contributions of people like Rebeca, Elena, and Adriana, three of the countless Spanish-speaking Catholics in the United States who have been engaged in sustainable behaviours since long before religious leaders began issuing environmental edicts.

And these stories fail to appreciate that only certain religious communities need to concern themselves with making “major changes in what they consume and how they live their daily lives” as a result of reading Laudato Si or other religious environmental texts.

Religiously inspired environmental actions, such as installing solar panels or participating in climate marches, are great ways of contributing to a more sustainable future, but they are not the only ways.

The stories that Spanish-speaking Catholics have shared with me underscore that there are many different ways of engaging with environmental issues, and not all of them look the same as participation in mainstream, white environmentalism.

If environmental leaders want to collaborate with religious communities as potential allies for responding to the climate crisis, it is imperative to recognize that “religious communities” are not a monolith whose actions and interests can be represented by powerful, white spokespeople. It is time to expand our limited conceptions of who can be an environmental authority.

  • Amanda J. Baugh is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at California State University, Northridge. She is the author of God and the Green Divide: Religious Environmentalism in Black and White.
  • First published by The Revealer.
  • All opinions expressed in The Revealer are solely those of the author.
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