The Benefits of Walking -by Peter Knox SJ

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Two days ago, the rector circulated a WhatsApp clip about the benefits of walking. Apparently all kinds of health advantages are associated with walking: reduced risk of multiple types of cancers – for men and women; improved muscle tone and bone density; better digestion; better chemistry; etc., etc. Humans have evolved as biped mammals to walk upright. Clearly this is what the Creator designed us to do. So we should do what we are designed for, and that will obviously keep us healthier than a sedentary lifestyle.

But the JENA Communication Desk didn’t approach me to write an article on walking, because it’s the latest medical opinion: Nobody’s interested in what I have to say about that. Medical doctors are much more convincing. The benefit about walking that I am able to assert, is that it is better for the health of the whole planet: The more people walk, the less they use motorised transport, the less fossil fuels are being burnt, the fewer greenhouse gases and other pollutants end up in our air, the healthier the planet is for all plants, animals and people.

I’m not saying that with more people walking this will be the solution to all the woes of global climate change and airborne pollution that kills millions of people a year. That would be too simplistic. With more people walking, we will still have cyclones thrashing coastal cities like Beira. There will still be unprecedented and extreme weather events, and cities blanketed in smog and smoke. People will still be forced to migrate because of the climate. Air pollution will still cause respiratory diseases. Even if every person started walking tomorrow, our planet will still need an Intensive Care Unit for many years to come.

Every little effort we make will make a contribution to the health of our common home. But it will take concerted global action to reverse the injuries that have been done by centuries of industrialisation and burning of fossil fuels. To address global climate change effectively, we will need to stop the extraction of ALL fossil carbon: tar, coal, gas, petroleum. And this is not going to happen for a while, as modern society is still addicted to energy derived from fossil fuels. In Johannesburg every winter evening we see the smog, from people burning coal for heating and cooking, from diesel vehicles that put out black smoke (“black carbon”); from the aeroplanes taking off and landing; from the coal-fired power plants. It will take much more than walking to change the quality of our air.

However, if we are to have any integrity, if we are to actually do what our rhetoric demands, then we must “walk the talk” (as we say in South Africa.) Taken seriously, our Universal Apostolic Preferences require lifestyle changes from us as Jesuits. We can no longer drive and fly around as usual, attending every important meeting we are invited to. The commitment to work alongside those caring for our common home means that we must actually do something ourselves, to emit fewer greenhouse gases, to create less waste, to consume less of the earth’s resources. This way, we will also be giving real hope to young people, who see faith leaders like ourselves not just mouthing unfounded promises of a healthier planet and a brighter future, but practicing what we preach.

If we cannot walk and cycle to all of our essential meetings, (and let’s face it, in Africa, this will never be possible,) then one fairly obvious way to reduce our environmental footprint – as individuals and as members of a universal Society – is to have virtual meetings. In pursuit of the higher good of a cleaner, healthier environment, we can sacrifice the face-to-face mode of international encounters that we cherish as Africans and as Jesuits. Apps like Zoom and Skype have made it feasible to have quality encounters without actually having to cross the city, national borders, the ocean, or the Equator. Sometimes we can meet people at the frontiers without ever leaving our rooms. I am normally opposed to substituting real human relationships with virtual engagements with the other, but I can see that in the interest of our common home and of present and future generations, virtual interactions will become the norm rather than the exception.

We are living an ecological kairos. This time of ecological crisis and heightened environmental consciousness is calling us to consider our priorities: Do we really need to participate in all the meetings and conferences which seem so important for our work? Are they a necessity or an addiction? Decades ago, when all South African Jesuits did courses in Advanced Motoring (very useful training in defensive and safe driving), the first question we were told to ask ourselves was: “Is this journey really necessary?” And sometimes the answer is obviously “No.” We have all sat through pointless and fruitless meetings. Maybe it’s time for us to begin counting the real cost of our meetings: time and resources wasted, the ‘externalities’ like pollution and frustration, and be more selective about what we attend.

And for meetings that are absolutely essential, if we cannot walk to them, or have them in a virtual format, then the least we can do is to try to use public transport to get us to our destination. Ride-sharing modes of transport like buses, taxis (the dreaded ‘matatu’ in Kenya) even aeroplanes, are effective means to reduce our Carbon footprint, or at least to share it among several users. It should be a mark of shame, and not of status, to be in a single-occupant vehicle – something to avoid, and not to aspire to. I certainly feel my fair share of Catholic guilt and regret when I am driving alone. Maybe other enlightened souls out there share my neurosis.

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