I remember when I was living in Washington, DC, my son, Ayhan, who was just four at the time, and I would take the train and bus halfway across the city to the Anacostia River to help clean it up. We went a few times—once on a bitterly cold Martin Luther King Jr. Day in late January. It was gross, picking up so much trash, even a few condoms and needles. It was angering—so many McDonald’s plastic straws, minimally useful and just for moments, and yet completely covering the banks of this river (and countless others). It was funny—pulling out part of a shopping cart, a Nerf football that had become part of the landscape (plants growing right through it—once again revealing Gaia’s resilience). And admittedly, it was fun too—working together with my young son, trying to heal our local environment and in our small way, the planet, and hopefully setting my son on an ecocentric path for his whole life (no pressure son, now hand me another garbage bag). Oh yeah, there were also free donuts—which made it all the better, especially to a 4-year old (ok, and to a 40 year old) who doesn’t often get donuts!
But the magnitude of garbage (thousands of pounds were collected by dozens of volunteers in just one small stretch of river)* made the whole experience feel futile. I couldn’t help wondering, “What’s the point? As soon as we leave, rains will come and wash hundreds more straws, wrappers, and water bottles down into the sewers and into the river. Why am I here instead of fighting for a plastic tax or campaigning against fast food corporations?”
And that’s when it hit me. The cleanup is environmentalists’ ritual penance and ablutions rolled into one. For those not familiar, penance is the ritualistic act of “voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong.” Ablutions are “a ceremonial act of washing parts of the body or sacred containers.” What could be a better form of penance than a river cleanup for an environmentally conscious individual who nonetheless is trapped in a consumer cultural system so that no matter how sustainably he tries to behave, he is going to produce massive amounts of waste and ecological damage? So of course one should kneel down and wrestle free rotting rope from mucky rocks. One should dig through thorny weeds to extract a sand-filled Funyuns bag that has been plaguing the river’s edge for what looks like years. And in the process, one is ritually washed in the waters of their ecosystem and planet, absolved a little for one’s daily consumer excesses, and purified a tiny bit for this act of contrition.**
Of course, there’s infinite more garbage elsewhere and more being produced every day than ever before—thanks to the plastic industry, fast food industry, marketing industry, and so many others. So to be very clear, cleanups are not the way we save the planet. But that is not to say they aren’t useful—they can cultivate community, they can help increase awareness, which hopefully leads to more conscious daily choices: “You know, I think I’ll bring a Tupperware container to the restaurant so I won’t need a disposable container for my leftovers and sure, I’ll sign that petition.” And more so, hopefully, just as saying Three Hail Marys leads to one better self-identifying as a Catholic, participating in cleanups should lead one to increasingly identify as an environmentalist, and even, as a Gaian (that is, an individual who understands that she is part of and utterly dependent on Gaia, so therefore it is her ultimate purpose to help heal Gaia).
In fact, curiosity primed, I found this essay on “What Really is the Purpose of Penance,” by Thomas L. Mulcahy. He suggests there are a lot of reasons: from cultivating discipline to serving as an outward sign of faith (both of which apply here as well). But this is his most important purpose of penance:
“Frankly, I believe that one of the primary purposes of penance is to remind us that we owe everything to God – our ongoing acts of penance showing how grateful we are for His merciful love, and how much we wish to avoid offending God in the future. And this penitential mindset helps to keep us in the presence of God as we meet head on the challenges and difficulties of the day.”
That is identical to what penance should be to a Gaian (with a few slight edits in italics):
“Frankly, I believe that one of the primary purposes of penance is to remind us that we owe everything to Gaia – our ongoing acts of penance showing how grateful we are for Gaia’s gift of life, and how much we wish to avoid hurting Gaia in the future. And this penitential mindset helps to keep us in the presence of Gaia as we meet head on the challenges and difficulties of the day.”
Amen to that.
Now this may sound as if I’m being tongue-in-cheek, but I’m not. Penance is powerful. It helps remind us of the consequences of our choices (and non-choices) as cleaning up garbage demonstrates. It helps to close the loop, making it palpable why we should skip the straw or the fast food place altogether. Yes, it demonstrates to others (and more importantly, to ourselves) that we’re committed to healing Gaia—especially in moments when you pass by beachgoers or joggers who look at you like you’re either mad or hired help. And most importantly, it reminds us that without Gaia, we will die. So if we don’t repent and start caring for Gaia, we will soon leave Earth behind and head to hell—not in the Christian sense, but in the superheated runaway climate change sense. And if some discomfort and dirty hands can help us to recognize this, then let’s go out and pick up some trash.
Note: Summer is a good time for cleanups. Check your local area and join in—my son and I joined a beach cleanup this past Saturday with Cinder + Salt and will join another of their cleanups next month on Earth Overshoot Day (August 22nd). And Anacostia River Keeper is organizing a series of Virtual Cleanups (on August 28th, September 11th, and September 19th) that anyone in the world can join. Go to your favorite spot—the one you always find calming but then when you see garbage, grump up, thinking ‘somebody should pick that up.’ That someone could be you! Don’t think of it as picking up other people’s crap, think about it as a way to connect more closely to Gaia, and to show Gaia your gratitude and respect.
*I don’t have the exact numbers for that cleanup any longer, but in 2019 volunteers with Anacostia Riverkeeper, which organized the cleanups I attended, collected 13,500 pounds of trash.
**Though to be clear, penance does not mean you can sin as much as you want. And the same applies here: picking up a bit of trash doesn’t mean you can use as much disposable packaging as you want. Or buy that product you know you don’t need, or disengage politically from the bigger struggles to defend and heal Gaia.