2020 will mark 50 years since 20 million Americans first took to the streets demonstrating on behalf of protecting our planet earth. Yet today, Earth Day goes barely unnoticed except for an environmentally themed "Google" search page or a few sunset Facebook or Instagram posts. While April 22 will mark Earth Day once again, one could surely ask if this day of celebration is still relevant? What about for the youth of our parishes? Does Earth Day even matter to young people today? Well, yes and no.
Yes, it's important to have a day set aside to give thanks and celebrate the beauty of our planet earth. Yes, it's probably even crucial, given the effects of climate change, to have a singular day that calls attention to the ways the earth is suffering from overuse and overconsumption. But for today's young people, Earth Day is more than just a day celebration marked with outdoor carnivals, face painting, and environmentally friendly products. For this young generation, Earth Day is every day.
Climate change will be the world's biggest challenge over the next decade, according to a global survey of young people carried out by Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company. This survey is the first global inquiry into the attitudes of young people aged 18 to 25 towards climate change, sustainable development, and renewable energy. The landmark online survey spoke to nearly 5,000 youth in 20 countries across the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The findings clearly illustrate the level of concern among young people about climate change, with 40% of those surveyed naming it among the biggest challenges facing the world in the next decade, ahead of the economy (34%), terrorism (32%), poverty and inequality (29%), and unemployment (29%).
If younger generations believe climate change to be one of the biggest challenges they're collectively facing, it only reasons that our faith communities provide opportunities to discuss, pray, and ultimately inspire young people to act on the issue. Last year as an ambassador for the Catholic Climate Covenant, I had the opportunity to visit the Wild Center in the Adirondacks of New York. I was amazed by their highly successful Youth Climate Summit which has even sent youth delegates to the United Nations and the Paris Climate Conference (COP21). Each year the Summit brings together over a 150 young people from 27 different high schools for climate change education and creative solutions dreaming. The mostly youth-led summit, provides teens with tools to make real changes back in their schools such as community gardens, energy audits, and serving sustainable cafeteria foods – just to name a few. Motivated by the Wild Center's Summit, I did some research on the internet and quickly discovered that there are youth climate summits occurring all over the country - even around the world. While youth taking leadership in climate solutions is awe-inspiring, I couldn't help but wonder why more Catholic communities are not utilizing this generation's desire to change the world and mobilizing youth for actual social change?
I'm not suggesting that every parish or diocese host a climate summit - which would be awesome - but I am suggesting that we take seriously young people's need and desire to connect their faith to the realities posed by the world we live in. Market researchers are discovering that teens are more likely to support a brand that supports a cause they care about (think Tom's Shoes). That's good news for the Catholic Church because care for creation is one of the seven principles of Catholic social teaching.
Yes! The Catholic Church also believes Earth Day is more than just a one day celebration; care for creation is something we are called to live every day! Further good news is Pope Francis has become one of the world's leading advocates for care of creation. In addition to his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, Pope Francis unashamedly implored Catholics to confess their sins against the environment and recently stated that the degradation of the climate is a "sin against God." It seems clear that Pope Francis believes we must take responsibility for our part in climate change and do something about it. I think young people want that too. More importantly, I think young people want their faith communities to support them in their efforts to change the world.
I pray that Earth Day 2017 we listen to the yearnings of this young generation and make the earth; our home, a priority every day. I also pray that our church recognizes the gift that is our young people and may we empower them for genuine leadership and social change.