|The Green at Brown University after Graduation 2015|
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Sometime in the spring of 1970, during the great student mobilizing effort against the war in Vietnam, I was meeting with a small group in the chapel at Wesleyan University. We must have been a sub-committee of something, but I don’t remember what that was. I am sure we had some very high purpose. We were pretty certain that what we were doing would have a lasting impact on society and make the world more just and peaceful.
I remember that it was a small group, but I only remember one of the participants. I could not tell you anything about our discussion. One image is indelibly burned into my brain. I remember one person perfectly. What I remember is that after he finished speaking he took one last drag on his cigarette and then dropped it on the chapel floor. As he exhaled, he ground out the stub with his boot.
In his mind, I think, it was an act of defiance against the University, which he saw as symbolic of everything wrong with society. It may also have been an indication of his contempt for religion.
What I thought, as I contemplated the smudged ashes on the chapel floor, was that the person who would clean that up was one of the very people that we, in our high purpose, claimed to care so much about.
That image has come back to me many times. In his great Book of Public Prayers, Harry Emerson Fosdick prays that we remember that God cannot make a good world without good people. My concern about the cigarette on the chapel floor may say more about the influence of my Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors than it does about the Kingdom of God, but I can’t help believing that it all matters.
I thought about that episode in the chapel as I read a story by Frank Carini on the recent graduation at Brown University. “The trashy scene recently left behind after the Brown University Class of 2015 graduated perfectly exemplified growing U.S. selfishness,” he writes. “Kindergartners leave a cafeteria with more grace than the ‘litterati’ who exited the Main Green by dumping their lunch trays on the ground. It’s sickening how little we think of others and the places we share that it’s considered acceptable to leave behind an easily-avoidable mess for someone else to clean.”
He goes on to describe “the university lawn littered with half-drunk plastic water bottles, newspapers, commencement programs, half-empty coffee carafes, pieces of lightly bitten fruit and other barely touched foods, and, of course, all things plastic.” This happened in spite of the fact that there were many containers labeled for trash and recycling.
It is unfair to pick on Brown. That scene was probably replicated at graduations across the country. Which is precisely the problem. The Brown graduation is not an outlier. It is not surprising that according to the EPA, Americans only recycle about 35% of our recyclables, and we compost at an every lower percentage. And we do this, for the most part, just because we are too lazy to do anything differently. According to the EPA, we throw away about 40% of our food, wasting 10 times as much per citizen as our sisters and brothers in Southeast Asia. We waste 50% more food today than we did in the 1970’s, before the environment became a (supposedly) popular issue.
What does it say about us that our brightest and best people don’t care enough about the world and their neighbors to pick up after themselves?