What does an environmental role model look like?

Pope Francis’ recent remarks about the environment struck me to the core:

“The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bio-accumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.

These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish.”

I have to admit, I’ve been part of this problem. My peers and I have been an integral part in throwaway culture. Even if we know about the severe consequences of our consumption habits, we’re reluctant to take action. And at this point, simply recycling most of the time isn’t going to cut it.

I need to make changes in my life if I want my kids and grandkids to be able to enjoy and appreciate Mother Earth in the way that I have been able to. For Catholics and non-Catholics alike, we should be looking to Pope Francis, and taking his words to heart—he’s one of the most visible environmental role models out there today.

In light of his words, here’s what I’m committing to myself, and pledging to do:

1. I commit to downsizing—and to following the examples of others.

First, I can think about the adjustments I can make in my lifestyle. What are the things that I can do without?

After doing some research into what I could do that would leave a meaningful impact, I came across some unique people who live lives that are more helpful than hurtful to the environment. I‘m committing myself to learning more about their lives, and understanding how I can serve as an example, too:

I was really struck by the story of 26-year-old Anamarie Shreeves, a site manager for the non-profit Keep Atlanta Beautiful, who produces almost no waste in her life. Here’s a glimpse at what that means, from a CNN interview:

“The list of things she doesn’t use would send shivers up a consumer marketer’s spine: No plastic packaging, no new clothing, no metal cans, no cars (and in turn, no gas)…The small amount of waste Shreeves does create goes straight into a 32-ounce mason jar that sits three-quarters full right next to her kitchen sink. Its contents include produce stickers, some paper tea bag wrappers and a long, twisted piece of cotton that went around her toes for a recent pedicure.”

Another notable person is the No-Impact Man (Colin Beavan). On his blog, he announced his intentions of living without waste—and taking his whole family along:

“For one year, my wife, my 2-year-old daughter, my dog and I, while living in the middle of New York City, are attempting to live without making any net impact on the environment. In other words, no trash, no carbon emissions, no toxins in the water, no elevators, no subway, no products in packaging, no plastics, no air conditioning, no TV, no toilets…”

I don’t know if it’s possible for me to live like either of these incredible people forever, but I might try it out for a week or maybe one day out of every week.

2. I commit to being part of the solutions conversation.

There is another part to our throwaway culture that addresses the institutions and structures of our society. We can set examples, start conversations, and hold people and institutions accountable. It’s up to us to do our homework on the brands we buy from, and the organizations we support.

According to a 2013 report released by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the following corporations have the biggest carbon impact—and therefore must be held accountable:

Wal Mart in the consumer staples industry

Carnival in the consumer discretionary industry

Exxon-Mobil in the energy industry

Bank of America in the financial industry

Bayer in the healthcare industry

Samsung in the information technology industry

Verizon in the telecommunications industry

There are plenty of other businesses that we can purchase our everyday goods from—and we can push these businesses to do more, and to do better. Maybe we can even find those that a local, community based business or those that have gone green. Or maybe you can reinvent some of these industries and products to be more eco-friendly!

No matter the goals, it’s up to us to pause and consider the impact of our words and actions. We should be looking to the examples of environmentally-friendly people, corporations, and organizations in our lives, and to hold each other accountable to do better. Change won’t happen unless we act.

Neerali Patel is a graduate student of sociology at the George Washington University. She became committed to studying socioeconomic inequality and stratification after a volunteer teaching experience in the slum communities of Ahmedabad, India. You can find her thoughts on inequality, interviews with thought leaders, and some of her poetry on her website.