A new vision of life after death

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2012” (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency http://www.epa.gov/waste/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/2012_msw_fs.pdf)

“If I know so little about my family four generations ago, the assumption follows that in four generations, they will know little about me. It changes the way you think about your life.”

On the first day of 2014, my dad made that comment in a casual discussion. I expect he was thinking more about wanting to be personally remembered by his descendants, but the comment resonated differently for me. Envisioning future generations dramatically reframes the question, “Is there life after death?” The answer is most definitively, “Yes.” There is life after we die, and our actions now impact all future life.

While ideas of life after death have changed over the years, the desire to make one’s mark on the world and be remembered has remained a constant. From the pyramids in Egypt to the plaques remembering fallen soldiers on main streets across America, we want to leave a legacy. We hope to make an impact beyond our short time on Earth, one that is forever remembered by those who follow.

We want them to remember us, but do we remember them? The idea may sound crazy; how can I remember someone who has not yet been born? In the same way that we expect that our great grandchildren will honor and respect our memory, we must recognize and reverence their potential. More important than monuments, we must leave a legacy that allows future generations to thrive and flourish upon Earth.

We should not ask, “When I die, how will I be remembered?” but rather, “What will life be like after I am gone? How are my current actions impacting the lives of those that live after my death?”

We are changing the face of Earth in many ways: mountaintop removal, acidification of the oceans, depletion of groundwater, air pollution, increased greenhouse gas emissions, trash mountains and garbage islands. Will future generations benefit from our current behaviors or are we slowly rendering the earth uninhabitable for human life? In a recently published interview, Pope Francis takes this theme one step further, asking: “Isn’t humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature?”

Responsible use of natural resources will positively impact life for generations to come. As wise and reverent stewards of creation, we can honor and respect future generations in our daily lives by asking two simple questions: “What do I use?” and “What do I waste?” These questions can be applied to every single thing we do.

An easy first step is to think about future generations every time I use water because one thing is certain: They will need water. Ask yourself, “Do I use water wisely? Am I conscious of my daily water use?” Water as a commodity is quickly becoming an acceptable concept, even though water is essential to all life and, according to the United Nations, a human right. Consider that at least every minute one child dies from a water-related illness, largely due to the lack of access to clean water. I can’t save the world, but I can sure be more mindful of the way I use this precious resource. Start first with simple conservation measures that will increase your awareness of water. Turn the water off while you wash your hands and brush your teeth. Fix leaky faucets. Drop the bottled water habit. According to Food and Water Watch:

Bottled water production in the United States used the energy equivalent of 32 and 54 million barrels of oil to produce and transport plastic water bottles in 2007 – enough to fuel about 1.5 million cars for a year. Rather than being recycled, about 75 percent of the empty plastic bottles end up in our landfills, lakes, streams and oceans, where they may never fully decompose.

This leads to the second question: What do I waste?

About 35 million tons of food ends up in landfills every year, accounting for 21 percent of the waste in landfills. According to a recent report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, each year about one-third of the food produced for human consumption worldwide is wasted. Reducing the amount of food grown and wasted could decrease the need to raise food production by 60 percent in order to meet the 2050 population’s demand. When this food rots in the landfills, it becomes a significant source of methane – a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Shockingly, food waste is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. Wasting food does not just take food from the mouths of the poor, it has lasting impacts on the future of life on Earth.

We will be forever remembered by the trash we leave behind. Does that sound extreme? Consider the questions, “What do I use?” and “What do I waste?” in a new context: Cities of trash like La Chureca and Catuera, Paraguay, where families make a meager living digging through trash to find food and items for resale. We are changing the face of the Earth on land and sea with trash mountains and garbage islands. If we don’t change our habits, there will be a new world floating in our oceans.

This is our reality.

Taking a critical look at what I use and what I waste can be overwhelming. I try to take it one step at a time. If I go to a buffet, am I taking more than I will eat? Am I throwing away items that can be reused or recycled? When I wash my hands, am I using water in a way that values the precious resource or am I simply letting the water run without a second thought? Our seemingly abundant natural resources are also finite. Are we being wise stewards of the resources that bless the Earth or are we taking more than we need and wasting more than we ought?

Looking back four generations, it is hard to imagine how my ancestors lived – without running water, raising most of their own food, building their homes and making all their clothes. It is even harder to imagine a conversation with my great-grandma about trash mountains and bottled water. Looking forward, I try to imagine what the world will look like for my great-granddaughter. Can I justify my behaviors now to this future innocent child? When I die, will the Earth remain a paradise or will I leave it a degraded and hellish place? We must find our connections to the past, evaluate our present choices and envision future generations. Let us prepare a way for our grandchildren that contains not just monuments to the past but investments in the future of all life on earth.

Is there life after death? Yes. And every single thing I do impacts life after my death.

[Rachel Myslivy, M.A., conducted the Green Sisters in Kansas Oral History Project documenting the environmental activism of Catholic sisters in Kansas. She is involved in a number of Catholic and environmental organizations and runs a family farm.]

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